Jaundice can be life threatening. Learn about the signs and what you should do.

Jaundice is a common medical condition in babies but it can also affect children and adults. It usually shows up as a yellowish discolouration of the skin, eyes and the mucus membranes (inside of the mouth) caused by high levels of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a pigment produced by the breakdown of haemoglobin from red blood cells circulating in the blood. In a normal, healthy body, bilirubin is removed from the blood by the liver.

Usually, jaundice in newborn babies or neonatal jaundice will clear without treatment. However, in adults, jaundice is a more serious problem, indicating a bile duct obstruction and liver damage or inflammation. Treating jaundice will depend on what’s causing it. But if the cause of the jaundice is not treated, there is a danger of liver failure.

What causes jaundice?

There are many reasons why your child or you develop jaundice. These are just some of the causes:

  • An obstruction of the bile duct, often due to a tumour or gallstone.
  • Viral Hepatitis: An infection of the liver caused by Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B virus.
  • A narrowing of the duct that transports bile from the liver to the small intestine.
  • Cirrhosis: A condition in which the liver tissue is damaged and tissue is replaced with scar tissue.
  • Drugs
  • Hemolytic anaemia: A condition in which there is excessive breakdown of haemoglobin.
  • Malaria: A serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes.

What should you look out for

  • Yellow discolouring of the skin, whites of the eyes (sclera), and mucus membranes
  • Dark urine
  • Nausea
  • Itch
  • Light-coloured stool (grey or yellow)
  • Abdominal pain or swelling

How is jaundice diagnosed?

If you suspect you or your child have jaundice, see a doctor immediately Your doctor will conduct a physical examination and run the following tests:

  • Serum bilirubin to measure the amount of bilirubin in the blood.
  • Complete blood count to obtain information about the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
  • Prothrombin time to measure the ability of the blood to clot.
  • Abdominal ultrasound to check the appearance of the liver and detect any other abnormalities such as tumours or gallstones.
  • Liver biopsy to take small samples from the liver.

Treating jaundice

Your doctor will decide on the treatment of jaundice based on your test results. For example, if the jaundice is caused by a gallstone blocking the bile duct, the treatment will be removing the cause of the obstruction.

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Contributed by:
Health Promotion Board