What is jaundice?

The yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes1 are typical indications of jaundice, a condition that develops either shortly after birth or during adulthood as a symptom of a potentially harmful illness or disease. Mucous membranes in the mouth can also experience discolouration.

Jaundice (hyperbilirubinemia) is not a disease, but does signal that something in the body is not functioning as it should, indicating an underlying problem. The name of the condition is derived from the French word, ‘jaune’, meaning yellow.

The yellow discolouration is typically as a result of excess bilirubin (a yellow pigment / chemical compound that is regarded as a waste product) in the body’s system. Bilirubin forms as a result of red blood cells (RBCs) that are broken down in the liver. Red blood cells typically replenish themselves and travel through the bloodstream, carrying oxygen and nutrients that are essential for healthy bodily function. The liver normally rids the body of bilirubin by filtering it along with old RBCs no longer needed (these pass through the digestive tract and out of the body through stools and urine).

Jaundice occurs when this function is not performed by the body efficiently, the liver then does not metabolise bilirubin and a build-up remains. This can indicate a serious illness whereby the impaired function of RBCs causes damage to the liver, pancreas or gallbladder.


1. US National Library of Medicine. May 2016. Hyperbilirubinemia in Neonates: Types, Causes, Clinical Examinations, Preventive Measures and Treatments: A Narrative Review Article. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4935699/ [Accessed 23 August 2018]

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