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What is jaundice?

Jaundice is a health condition that refers to the yellowing of the skin due to the build-up of excessive bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a by-product of red blood cell breakdown. Elevated levels of bilirubin may be caused by high levels of red blood cell destruction.

What causes jaundice in babies?

Jaundice in infants is very common, especially if the baby is born before 38 weeks gestation. It occurs because the baby’s immature liver cannot process the bilirubin in its bloodstream, causing the baby’s skin to appear yellow. Babies’ bodies produce more bilirubin than adults since red blood cells break down faster in the first week following birth.

Most babies born in hospitals are examined for jaundice regularly before they’re discharged. It typically presents within 2-3 days after birth. If jaundice occurs and is mild, it is left to resolve on its own. More serious infant jaundice may be caused by another issue like internal bleeding, liver malfunction, infection, or an enzyme deficiency.

What causes jaundice in adults?  

Adult jaundice is also caused by high levels of bilirubin. There are many different situations that can cause an adult’s bilirubin levels to rise, ranging from organic and inorganic substances, diseases, genetics, viruses, infections, and more. 

Several autoimmune disorders, viruses, and genetic defects can cause jaundice as a symptom. It can also be triggered by a gallbladder issue like gallstones, gallbladder cancer, or a pancreatic tumor. 

Typically, an adult with jaundice will display the characteristic yellow skin, and may also have a fever, chills, abdominal pain, and dark-colored urine. Some people also develop jaundice as a reaction to a medication or substance like penicillin, anabolic steroids, or chlorpromazine.

Is jaundice contagious?

Jaundice itself is not contagious. However, it is worth noting that many of the conditions that can cause jaundice are themselves communicable to others. Some of these conditions include Hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E, Weil’s disease, and yellow fever.

Some people who have hereditary conditions that can cause jaundice may pass these on to their children. This isn’t the same as passing on a communicable disease, but it may mean that certain families are more likely to have jaundice around the same time.   

How to treat jaundice

Since jaundice is a symptom, most treatment plans for jaundice begin by treating the underlying condition that’s causing it. Once the underlying condition is controlled and the body is healthier, the jaundice will go away on its own.

Related Terms

Hemoglobin

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Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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