Once called “the regal disease” due to the belief that only the touch of a king could cure it, jaundice is not a disease, but rather an indication of a variety of diseases. Jaundice comes from the French word “jaune” . . . meaning yellow. The signs and symptoms of jaundice, its causes and treatment options will be explored in this continuing series of articles on The ABC’s of Health. This article focuses on adolescent and adult jaundice, and not jaundice in newborn infants.
Jaundice is a yellowish staining of the skin and whites of the eyes that is caused by high levels in blood of the chemical bilirubin. When the bilirubin level is mildly elevated, the skin and whites of the eyes are yellowish. A high level of bilirubin will cause the skin and whites of the eyes to be brown.
Why does jaundice occur? There are several causes:
Too much bilirubin being produced for the liver to remove from the blood such as what may occur with hemolytic anemia patients.
A defect in the liver that prevents bilirubin from being removed from the blood such as liver disease, hepatitis, and metastatic cancer to the liver brought on by cancers within the abdomen.
A blockage of the bile ducts that decreases the flow of bile and bilirubin from the liver into the intestines that may be due to gallstones, cancer, or inflammation of the bile ducts. According to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, bile duct blockage can lead to jaundice in approximately 70 to 85 percent of patients with tumors in the pancreas.
Drugs such as estrogen may also be the culprit.
A genetic disorder, such as Gilbert’s syndrome, is known to affect approximately seven percent of the population. It is a benign condition that does not cause health problems.
The specific cause of jaundice would dictate your treatment options. If a gallstone is found, removal of the gallstone would treat the condition. If due to a drug, stopping the drug most likely will correct the jaundice within a few weeks.
The most significant symptom, besides the yellowing, is itching. Itching so severe that it may cause sufferers to scratch their skin “raw,” have trouble sleeping, and rarely, even to commit suicide.
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