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When the body's digestive system does not properly break down and eliminate old red blood cells, a back-up of bilirubin may occur, resulting in jaundice. Bilirubin is a byproduct of red blood cells breaking down in the liver. When the liver or other digestive organs are not functioning properly, or too many red blood cells are dying, bilirubin levels rise in the body, producing the yellow skin and eyes associated with a diagnosis of jaundice. Newborn jaundice is relatively common due to the excess red blood cells in the body at birth, but jaundice in older children and adults may indicate diseased organs, gallstones, infection, or alcoholism.
The most obvious indicator of jaundice is yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes, and mucous membranes in the mouth and nose. Urine will usually be darker in color than normal and stool may be pale. Other symptoms may include fatigue, sluggishness, and weight loss. A physician will typically perform a physical exam, and take blood samples to measure bilirubin levels before reaching a diagnosis of jaundice.
Newborn jaundice is common between three to five days of life. When an infant suffers skin yellowing before 24 hours post-partum, or after five days of life, medical testing and treatment may be necessary. Since babies are born with elevated red blood cells, and must learn to properly feed from breast or bottle, it can be difficult for their bodies to flush out excess bilirubin. Pediatricians often measure bilirubin levels before discharging newborns from the hospital, and if the levels are too high, an affected infant may need to spend time under phototherapy lights. If left untreated, severe infant jaundice may cause a brain condition called kernicterus, which can lead to cerebral palsy.
Children and adults usually receive a diagnosis of jaundice in combination with other conditions. Excess red blood cells due to viral infections, such as hepatitis, or from autoimmune disorders or alcoholism, can bring about a diagnosis of jaundice. Digestive complications, like bacterial infection, pancreatic or liver cancers, and gallstones, may also be responsible. Most conditions that cause jaundice include other symptoms, which are analyzed so the source of the problem can be identified and treated. Medical tests that may be performed include blood tests, abdominal scans, and biopsies of digestive organs.
A physician should be contacted any time jaundice is suspected in an infant, child, or adult. Yellowing skin will usually result in a diagnosis of jaundice, and additional symptoms can be assessed. Sometimes the skin may appear jaundiced due to a recent increase in beta-carotene in the diet. This is harmless and typically occurs after consuming carrots. A blood test can determine whether a patient who looks yellow is actually suffering from elevated bilirubin.