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Jaundice in Adults. Should you be concerned?

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

What is jaundice?

Jaundice is a condition that causes your skin or the whites of your eyes to turn yellow. It happens when you have too much of a substance called "bilirubin" in your blood.

Why does it happen in adults?

Hepatitis: Most of the time, this infection is caused by a virus. It may be short-lived (acute) or chronic, which means it lasts for at least 6 months. Common viruses which cause this infection are Hepatitis A, B, C and E. Drugs or autoimmune disorders can cause hepatitis. Over time, it can damage the liver and lead to jaundice.

Alcohol-related liver disease: If you drink too much over a long period of time, typically 8 to 10 years, you could seriously damage your liver. Two diseases in particular, alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis, harm the liver.

Blocked bile ducts: These are thin tubes that carry a fluid called bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine. Sometimes, they get blocked by gallstones, cancer, or rare liver diseases. If they do, you could get jaundice.

Pancreatic cancer: This is the 10th most common cancer in men and the ninth in women. It can block the bile duct, causing jaundice.

Certain medicines: Drugs like acetaminophen, penicillin, birth control pills, and steroids have been linked to liver disease.

Do you need to see a liver surgeon or liver physician if you notice jaundice?

There can be two kinds of jaundice, medical or surgical. Jaundice due to hepatitis, alcohol and certain medications can be treated by physician. But jaundice due to Blocked bile ducts or pancreatic cancer, treatment is surgery or endoscopic intervention. Surgical jaundice is usually deep jaundice with itching over the body and pale coloured stools. Also blood investigations and ultrasound scan can be used to differentiate between the two.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will give you a bilirubin test, which measures the amount of the substance in your blood, a complete blood count (CBC) and other liver tests. If you have jaundice, your level of bilirubin will be high.

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. She may also give you a physical exam and order tests to check your liver. And she’ll do more tests, including imaging tests like CT scan or MRCP to find out what caused it.

How is it treated?

Jaundice is a symptom of underlying disease and is not a disease in itself. Hence to treat it, we need to treat the underlying disease.

Acute viral hepatitis caused by Hepatitis A, which is one of the commonest cause of jaundice in India, will decrease on itself without any medications. Chronic hepatitis due to Hepatitis B or C virus will need anti-viral drugs as treatment.

Abstinence from alcohol is important in alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. If cirrhosis is in advanced stage, it will require Liver Transplantation.

Jaundice due to blockage of bile ducts or pancreatic cancer needs surgery to remove the blockage. Also temporary relief can be given by putting stent through endoscopy or percutaneously through liver (PTBD).

How useful are local treatment or so called Ayurvedic medications given by some local practitioners?

Most of the reports of people being cured by local treatments are because of the type of jaundice affecting them. Hepatitis A is a common cause of jaundice which does not need any treatment to cure. It would have also decreased without any local treatment.

However the other causes of jaundice could be a symptom of dangerous disease or cancer. It is advisable to see a liver doctor and follow his/her advice for the same.

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