Jaundice, also known as icterus, is a yellowish or greenish pigmentation of the skin and whites of the eyes due to high bilirubin levels. It is commonly associated with itchiness. The feces may be pale and the urine dark. Jaundice in babies occurs in over half in the first week following birth and in most is not a problem. If bilirubin levels in babies are very high for too long, a type of brain damage, known as kernicterus, may occur.
Causes of jaundice vary from non-serious to potentially fatal. Levels of bilirubin in blood are normally below 1.0 mg/dL (17 µmol/L) and levels over 2–3 mg/dL (34-51 µmol/L) typically results in jaundice. High bilirubin is divided into two types: unconjugated (indirect) and conjugated (direct).Conjugated bilirubin can be confirmed by finding bilirubin in the urine.Other conditions that can cause yellowish skin but are not jaundice includecarotenemia from eating large amounts of certain foods and medications like rifampin.
High unconjugated bilirubin may be due to excess red blood cell breakdown, large bruises, genetic conditions such as Gilbert's syndrome, not eating for a prolonged period of time, newborn jaundice, or thyroid problems. High conjugated bilirubin may be due to liver diseases such as cirrhosis or hepatitis, infections, medications, or blockage of the bile duct. In the developed world, the cause is more often blockage of the bile duct or medications while in the developing world, it is more often infections such as viral hepatitis, leptospirosis, schistosomiasis, or malaria. Blockage of the bile duct may occur due to gallstones, cancer, orpancreatitis. Medical imaging such as ultrasound is useful for detecting bile duct blockage.
Signs and symptoms
The main sign of jaundice is a yellowish discoloration of the white area of the eye and the skin. Urine is dark in colour. Slight increases in serum bilirubin are best detected by examining the sclerae, which have a particular affinity for bilirubin due to their high elastin content. The presence of scleral icterus indicates a serum bilirubin of at least 3 mg/dL. The conjunctiva of the eye are one of the first tissues to change color as bilirubin levels rise in jaundice. This is sometimes referred to as scleral icterus. The sclera themselves are not "icteric" (stained with bile pigment), however, but rather the conjunctival membranes that overlie them. The yellowing of the "white of the eye" is thus more properly termed conjunctival icterus. The term "icterus" itself is sometimes incorrectly used to refer to jaundice that is noted in the sclera of the eyes; its more common and more correct meaning is entirely synonymous with jaundice, however.
Hyperbilirubinemia, more precisely hyperbilirubinemia due to the unconjugated fraction, may cause bilirubin to accumulate in the gray matter of the central nervous system, potentially causing irreversible neurological damage leading to a condition known as kernicterus. Depending on the level of exposure, the effects range from clinically unnoticeable to severe brain damage and even death. Newborns are especially vulnerable to hyperbilirubinemia-induced neurological damage and therefore must be carefully monitored for alterations in their serum bilirubin levels.
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