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Jaundice in adults

6-minute read

If you experience jaundice and sudden symptoms such as fever, confusion and intense abdominal pain, call triple zero (000).

What is jaundice?

Jaundice is the yellow discolouration of your skin, the whites of your eyes and body fluids.

Jaundice is not a disease in itself but is a sign of an underlying health problem.

Jaundice is also common in babies. For information on jaundice in babies, visit the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website.

Jaundice can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition.

What are the symptoms of jaundice?

Jaundice causes your skin and the whites of your eyes to appear yellow. Other symptoms can also occur with jaundice. These include:

If you experience jaundice and sudden symptoms such as fever, confusion and intense abdominal pain, call triple zero (000).

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes jaundice?

Jaundice is caused by the build-up of a substance called bilirubin in your blood.

When an adult becomes jaundiced, it can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition.

Jaundice is usually a symptom of liver disease. This happens because your damaged liver cells cannot process bilirubin. The bilirubin goes into your blood causing jaundice.

It can be caused by:

Jaundice can also result from:

When should I see my doctor?

If you have jaundice, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. You may also have other symptoms.

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ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is jaundice diagnosed?

Your doctor will talk to you, examine your abdomen, and ask about your symptoms. They may also ask about your lifestyle and medical history.

Your doctor may order blood and urine tests. These allow your doctor to check your level of bilirubin and assess the health of your liver.

They may also order an ultrasound, MRI or CT scan to check for blockages. These can also be used to check for signs of liver and pancreatic disease. In some cases, your doctor may request a liver biopsy to confirm liver disease.

How is jaundice treated?

The underlying cause of jaundice in adults needs to be treated, not the jaundice itself.

Your treatment options depend on the cause of your jaundice.

To relieve symptoms of jaundice caused by hepatitis, you should:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluids
  • avoid alcohol
  • avoid medicines that impact the liver

There are effective medicines for the treatment of hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Your doctor might suggest surgery for other causes of jaundice such as:

  • gallstones
  • a blocked bile duct
  • pancreatic cancer

Surgery may involve placement of a stent. This lets the bile (digestive fluid made by your liver) flow past the blockage.

Can jaundice be prevented?

There is no clear way to prevent jaundice, as it can be caused by different conditions.

But there are ways to prevent underlying diseases. To reduce your risk of liver disorders reduce your alcohol intake.

To lower your risk of hepatitis infection, practice good hygiene and safe sex.

Complications of jaundice

If the cause of your jaundice stays untreated, you may experience complications. These can vary depending on your underlying condition.

Resources and support

If you need to know more about jaundice in adults, or to get advice on what to do next, talk to your doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

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