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What Is Obstructive Jaundice?

By Steven Symes
Updated May 17, 2024
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Obstructive jaundice is a medical condition caused by a blockage in the body’s biliary system that leads to a buildup of bile in the body's bloodstream. Once the bile is in the bloodstream, it is then transported around to the body’s various organs. The biliruben contained in bile has a yellow color, causing the person’s skin, eyes and mucous membranes to turn yellow as well. Since obstructive jaundice is a serious condition, if it is not treated by healthcare professionals it can lead to infection and even death.

Blockages inside the body’s biliary system can originate from one of several different causes. The most common source of a blockage comes from gallstones that accumulate in the bile duct. Obstructive jaundice may also be a sign of pancreatic cancer, with the cancerous growth blocking the passage in the head of the pancreas. Less-common causes include parasites living inside the bile duct, tumor growths in the biliary system and general trauma suffered by a patient. Some people are born with an abnormally-shaped biliary system, which does not allow bile to flow correctly.

The introduction of bile to the bloodstream can lead to serious infection. If a person suspects they or someone else is suffering from obstructive jaundice, that person needs to seek emergency medical attention without delay. Without proper treatment, the bile flowing into the bloodstream from obstructive jaundice can result in not only serious infections of various organs, but also organ failure and eventually death.

Yellow skin and eyes are the most obvious symptom of obstructive jaundice. Other symptoms include dark urine, pain in the abdomen and light-colored stools. Life-threatening symptoms include a fever that measures 101 degrees Fahrenheit ( 38.3 degrees Celsius), severe abdominal pain or bloating and nausea.

What treatment a patient suffering from obstructive jaundice receives depends on the cause of the condition. Some patients might only need to adjust their diet or take antibiotics to correct their condition. Surgery may be necessary to correct the structure of the biliary system or to remove obstructions, or chemotherapy may be necessary to treat cancerous growths.

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