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What is Jaundice?

Jaundice is a condition in which the skin, sclera (whites of the eyes), and mucous membranes turn yellow due to the build-up of bilirubin in the blood. While jaundice is not a disease in itself but can be a symptom of several potential underlying health conditions. General symptoms of Jaundice include a yellow tinge to the skin, itchiness, pale stools, or dark urine. There are various treatments for Jaundice depending on the underlying cause. For milder symptoms, doctors can suggest a boost in iron content or antiviral or steroid medications for hepatitis-induced jaundice. For severe symptoms, doctors can suggest a change to an alternative medication or even surgery. Find out about the detailed treatment for jaundice in the article below.

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About Jaundice

Jaundice is a condition that turns the skin, sclera (white in the eyes), and mucous membranes yellow. The yellow colouration is caused due to high levels of bilirubin, a yellow-orange bile pigmentation. While jaundice is not a disease in itself but can be a symptom of several potential underlying health conditions.

 Three types of jaundice are known to us. These include -

  1. Hepatocellular Jaundice: It occurs due to liver diseases or injury.

  2. Hemolytic Jaundice: It occurs due to hemolysis or fast breakdown of red blood cells that leads to an increase in bilirubin production in the body.

  3. Obstructive Jaundice: It occurs due to an obstruction in the bile duct, preventing bilirubin to exit from the liver.

Anyone can contract jaundice, but infants and older citizens are at a higher risk. In this section, we will be learning about all the jaundice causes, diagnosis, treatment, and preventive measures in detail. Let us begin by understanding jaundice symptoms.

Symptoms of Jaundice

Some common jaundice symptoms are as follows:

  • A yellow tinge to the skin, normally starting at the head and spreading down the body

  • Pale stools

  • Dark urine

  • Itchiness

Low bilirubin levels due to jaundice can result in the following symptoms as well:

  • Fatigue

  • Abdominal pain

  • Sudden weight loss

  • Vomiting

  • Fever

Jaundice in Newborns

Infants are most likely to suffer from jaundice, and the risk is high if the baby is premature. Newborns will show symptoms of jaundice within 72 hours of birth. The cause of jaundice in babies is because the red blood cells in their body are frequently broken down and replaced, leading to increased bilirubin production.

Moreover, the liver in newborns is less developed and its functionalities are less effective in filtering out excess bilirubin from the body. However, the symptoms of jaundice usually resolve in two weeks without any medical treatment. But in case of excessive bilirubin levels, the child may have to undergo a blood transfusion or phototherapy for recovery. Failing to do so can lead to kernicterus, a rare type of permanent brain damage, in the baby.

What’s the Ideal Bilirubin Level?

In adults and older children, the bilirubin level should be between 0.3 mg/dL and 0.6 mg/dL. Over 97% of babies born after nine months of pregnancy show bilirubin levels lower than 13 mg/dL. If the levels are higher than this, the baby is taken under immediate medical attention for further investigation.

Causes of Jaundice

Jaundice usually occurs when your body does not process bilirubin properly. The underlying condition can be liver problems that can either result in excessive bilirubin production or prevent the organ from getting rid of it. In both cases, bilirubin is deposited in the surrounding tissues. The following health conditions may also be a cause for jaundice:

  • Acute Liver Inflammation: The ability of the liver to conjugate and secrete bilirubin is impaired, resulting in excessive build-up.

  • Bile Duct Inflammation: Here, the secretion of bile and removal of bilirubin is prevented, further causing jaundice.

  • Bile Duct Obstruction: It prevents the liver from getting rid of excessive bilirubin.

  • Hemolytic Anaemia: When large quantities of red blood cells are broken down, bilirubin production increases.

  • Gilbert’s Syndrome: It is a hereditary condition that impairs the ability to process bile excretion.

  • Cholestasis: Here, the flow of bile from the liver is interrupted, making it reside in the liver instead of being excreted.

Some other rare health conditions that can cause jaundice are as follows:

  • Crigler-Najjar Syndrome: This condition is hereditary and impairs the body’s ability to process bilirubin.

  • Dubin-Johnson Syndrome: Another inherited chronic form of jaundice that prevents conjugated bilirubin from being excreted from the liver.

  • Pseudojaundice: It is a harmless form of jaundice. Pseudojaundice usually arises from eating large quantities of carrot, pumpkin, or melon.

Diagnosis of Jaundice

If you are suffering from jaundice symptoms, your doctors will first seek information about your medical history. Further, a physical exam will be done to confirm the bilirubin levels in your body. Doctors also pay close attention to the abdomen, feel for tumours, and check the firmness of the liver.

The firmness of the liver shows cirrhosis or scarring of the organ. A rock-hard liver usually suggests cancer. If the doctor is unable to diagnose the cause of jaundice, further tests are recommended to understand the cause. These include:

  • Bilirubin tests: Having a high level of unconjugated bilirubin compared to levels of conjugated bilirubin suggest hemolytic jaundice.

  • Full blood count (FBC) or complete blood count (CBC): It helps measure levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the body.

  • Hepatitis A, B, and C tests: It helps understand a range of liver infections.

Your doctor will examine the structure of the liver in case they suspect an obstruction. Further, imaging tests such as MRI, CT scan, and ultrasound can be recommended. Other tests, such as endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) can also be suggested. Undergoing liver biopsy can help understand liver inflammation, cirrhosis, cancer, and fat.

Treatment for Jaundice

The treatment your doctor suggests to recover from jaundice depends on the underlying cause. Usually, jaundice treatment targets the main cause and not just the symptoms. Some of these treatments include:

  • For treating anaemia-induced jaundice: Doctors can suggest a boost in iron content in the blood through iron supplements or eating iron-rich food.

  • For treating hepatitis-induced jaundice: It can require antiviral or steroid medications.

  • For treating obstruction-induced jaundice: Doctors can recommend surgically removing the obstruction.

  • For treating jaundice caused due to medications: Here, the treatment involves a change to an alternative medication.

Prevention of Jaundice

Since jaundice suggests poor liver functionalities and/or damage, the patient should maintain their health by:

  • Consuming a balanced meal

  • Exercising daily

  • Avoiding alcohol and smoking

Conclusion

One can recover from jaundice if the underlying health condition is treated immediately. The patient must consult a doctor when they first experience jaundice symptoms (mild). In case the symptoms worsen, the doctor can suggest hospitalisation until complete recovery.

Further, know that hospitalisation and treatment can often leave you and your family with financial overheads. The least you can do is get an adequate health insurance plan to cover such sudden/planned medical needs.  

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