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A to Z: Jaundice

May also be called: Icterus

Jaundice (JON-diss) refers to the yellow color of the skin and whites of the eyes caused by excess bilirubin in the blood.

More to Know

Bilirubin is produced by the normal breakdown of red blood cells (RBCs). Ordinarily, bilirubin passes through the liver and is discharged as bile in the intestines. Jaundice occurs when bilirubin builds up faster than the liver can break it down and pass it from the body. This can happen if too many RBCs are breaking down and going to the liver, if the liver is damaged or blocked, or if bilirubin doesn’t pass through the digestive tract properly.

Jaundice, which isn’t painful, can be caused by many things (such as infections and blood disorders) or be a sign of a problem with the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas.

High levels of bilirubin can lead to serious complications if they go untreated for too long. Jaundice is most common among newborn babies and people with liver infections, gallstones, or substance abuse issues.

Keep in Mind

All cases of jaundice should be evaluated by a doctor. Treatment will depend on its cause — often, particularly with newborns, the cause is something harmless and the jaundice will clear up on its own.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.