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What is jaundice?

Jaundice is yellowing of the skin, sclera (eyes) and mucous membranes caused by increased levels of bilirubin in the system. Usually the concentration of bilirubin in the blood must exceed 2-3mg/dL for the coloration to be easily visible. Jaundice is not an illness, but a medical condition in which too much bilirubin – a compound produced by the breakdown of hemoglobin from red blood cells – is circulating in the blood. This excess of bilirubin causes the skin, eyes and the mucus

membranes (inside of the mouth) to turn a yellowish color. This yellowish color is due to the bilirubin dissolving in the fat layer just below the skin.

The most important function of the liver is the processing of chemical waste products like cholesterol and excreting them into the intestines as bile. The liver is the premier chemical factory in the body--most incoming and outgoing chemicals pass through it. It is the first stop for all nutrients, toxins, and drugs absorbed by the digestive tract. The liver also collects chemicals from the blood for processing. Many of these outward-bound chemicals are excreted into the bile. One particular substance, bilirubin, is yellow. Bilirubin is a product of the breakdown of hemoglobin, which is the protein inside red blood cells. If bilirubin cannot leave the body, it accumulates and discolors other tissues. The normal total level of bilirubin in blood serum is between 0.2 mg/dL and 1.2 mg/dL. When it rises to 3 mg/dL or higher, the person's skin and the whites of the eyes become noticeably yellow.

Bile is formed in the liver. It then passes into the network of hepatic bile ducts, which join to form a single tube. A branch of this tube carries bile to the gallbladder, where it is stored, concentrated, and released on a signal from the stomach. Food entering the stomach is the signal that stimulates the gallbladder to release the bile. The tube, which is now called the common bile duct, continues to the intestines. Before the common bile duct reaches the intestines, it is joined by another duct from the pancreas. The bile and the pancreatic juice enter the intestine through a valve called the ampulla of Vater. After entering the intestine, the bile and pancreatic secretions together help in the process of digestion.

Jaundice is very common in a mild and transient form in newborn babies, and it is most often a harmless and easily remedied condition. It is caused by the baby having a higher blood count than needed and the blood cells are broken down. Severe cases are treated with special lights, called bililights, which break down the bilirubin.

More information on jaundice

What is jaundice? - Jaundice is Yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes (sclerae), caused by blockage of the intestines. A sign that the liver or bile duct system is not working normally.
What is bilirubin? - Bilirubin is a chemical breakdown product of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is broken down to heme and globin. High level of bilirubin can cause neonatal jaundice, a yellow skin color.
What causes jaundice? - Jaundice is caused by excessive amounts of bilirubin. Jaundice usually is caused by liver dysfunction or blockage of the bile ducts leading from the liver to the small bowel.
What're hemolytic disorders? - The process of red blood cell destruction is called hemolysis, and the diseases that cause it are called hemolytic disorders.
What are the symptoms of jaundice? - Jaundice is the yellow staining of the skin and sclerae (the whites of the eyes) by abnormally high blood levels of the bile pigment, bilirubin.
What conditions can be associated with jaundice? - Jaundice is a symptom of many disorders, which can include viral hepatitis, alcoholism, poisoning, abnormal breakdown of red blood cells or gallbladder disease.
How is jaundice diagnosed? - The diagnosis of jaundice is suggested by the appearance of the patient's eyes and complexion. Disease in the biliary system can be identified by imaging techniques.
What's newborn jaundice? - Normal newborn jaundice is the result of two conditions occurring at the same time - a pre-hepatic and a hepatic source of excess bilirubin.
What're symptoms of newborn jaundice? - Most infants with jaundice show no physical symptoms as the liver starts maturing. In the newborn, jaundice first becomes visible on the face.
What causes newborn baby jaundice? - Breast feeding mothers often experience persisting jaundice or jaundice without blood group incompatibilities. Blood incompatibility is a common cause.
How is jaundice in newborn babies diagnosed? - When a newborn baby shows signs of jaundice, the doctor does a physical examination and blood tests to help determine the cause of the jaundice.
What's the treatment for infant jaundice? - Treatment for infant jaundice is usually unnecessary. It is important to keep the baby well-hydrated and encourage frequent bowel movements by feeding frequently.
What is neonatal jaundice? - Neonatal jaundice (or hyperbilirubinemia) is a higher-than-normal level of bilirubin in the blood. Neonatal jaundice is usually harmless.
What causes neonatal jaundice? - Hyperbilirubinemia can cause jaundice to develop within a few days after birth. Hyperbilirubinemia and jaundice can also be the result of other diseases or conditions.
What are the symptoms of neonatal jaundice? - The signs and symptoms of neonatal jaundice will depend largely on the cause. Extremely high levels of bilirubin in infants may cause kernicterus.
How is neonatal jaundice diagnosed? - The initial diagnosis of hyperbilirubinemia is based on the appearance of jaundice at physical examination.
What's the treatment for neonatal jaundice? - Most cases of newborn jaundice resolve without medical treatment within two to three weeks. Neonatal jaundice is treated by means of phototherapy.
What's obstructive jaundice? - Obstructive jaundice caused by obstruction of the bile ducts. Common causes of obstructive jaundice include gallstones and tumors of the pancreas or bile duct.
What's breastfeeding jaundice? - Breast feeding jaundice is that breast-fed babies with physiologic jaundice generally reach higher levels of total bilirubin compared to formula-fed babies.
What's breast milk jaundice? - Breastmilk jaundice is believed to be caused by a hormone in breastmilk that interferes with the natural elimination of bilirubin.
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All information is intended for reference only. Please consult your physician for accurate medical advices and treatment. Copyright 2005,, all rights reserved. Last update: July 18, 2005