When you think of yellow eyes and skin, you might panic at the thought of jaundice. While jaundice can indicate built-up bilirubin (a yellowish substance in your blood) in the liver, it may signal other conditions that require medical attention.
Your doctor can check your liver and run additional tests to get you the treatment you need.
What Are Yellow Eyes?
Healthy Scleras (the whites of the eyes) are white. Yellowing of the eyes may indicate a serious medical condition like jaundice.
Jaundice happens when haemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying component in your blood) breaks down into bilirubin. Once the bilirubin reaches the liver, your liver should filter it out of your body through bile ducts so that faecal matter can expel it.
However, if your liver does not function properly, it can cause bilirubin to build up in your skin. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment formed in your liver, which means that it causes yellowed eyes and skin when it stays in your body.
If you experience jaundice or yellow eyes, talk to your doctor about getting tests and treatment.
Yellow eyes usually indicate an issue with one of the following:
Your liver breaks down red blood cells, and many types of liver disease can cause jaundice. Cirrhosis, or liver scarring, is one of the most common causes of liver dysfunction. It can result from:
- Alcohol use disorder
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Liver cancer
- Liver infection
- Hepatitis B and C (A, D, and E can also cause this condition, but they are less common)
You may also see yellowing of the eyes with Hemochromatosis, Wilson’s disease, and Porphyrias, which all cause a buildup of certain metals or other substances in the liver.
These accumulated substances affect your liver so that it cannot do its job of removing bilirubin, and so your eyes and skin may turn yellow.
Your gallbladder contains bile from your liver, which allows you to digest fats, and connects to your liver through the bile ducts. If you have issues like gallstones, cysts, tumours, or cholecystitis (inflammation), these problems can block a bile duct.
When your bile ducts cannot transport bile, it builds up, causing yellow eyes.
Your pancreas produces hormones and enzymes to aid in digestion and other body processes. Along with the bile duct, the duct from your pancreas leads to the small intestine. If it gets inflamed, infected, or obstructed, bilirubin can build up and create yellow eyes. Compared to gallbladder and liver conditions, jaundice due to pancreatic issues is less common.
Your red blood cells should break down once they reach your liver. However, certain conditions can mean that they do not.
Any of the following conditions can play a role in causing jaundice:
- Drug-induced immune hemolytic anaemia
- Blood transfusion incompatibility
- Sickle cell anaemia
Regardless of which of these organs or disorders causes jaundice, you should seek medical help right away. Ignoring these conditions can become life-threatening and lead to organ failure.
The symptoms associated with yellowness in the eyes vary based on why your eyes turn yellow in the first place. Regardless, you’ll notice that instead of a normal white sclera in your eyes, a yellowish pigment will appear.
When your eyes are yellow, this symptom typically accompanies jaundice, and your skin may appear yellow or orange from built-up bilirubin when it does not pass through bile ducts properly. General symptoms of jaundice may also include:
- Appetite loss
- Swelling in the leg or abdomen
- Joint or muscle aches
You may also experience symptoms associated more specifically with certain conditions. For example, with liver disease, you may see appetite loss and nausea alongside sudden weight loss and unexplained fatigue, as bilirubin accumulates in your liver.
A gallbladder issue is more likely to come with symptoms like chills and fever, along with abdominal pain.
When bilirubin builds up in your body, it can cause not only jaundice, but you may experience dark urine, light-coloured faeces, and itchy skin, as well.
While many conditions that lead to jaundice do not have long-term effects, some can be deadly, especially if left without medical attention–like hepatitis, cirrhosis, and cancer. You can develop organ damage, especially if you have liver disease or damage, or another serious medical condition.
If you have any of the following conditions, you may be at a higher risk for jaundice in your eyes and skin.
- Hemolytic anaemia: This disorder causes your red blood cells to break down faster than your body can replace them. The process can mean you have increased bilirubin in your body, which causes jaundice.
- Gilbert’s syndrome: It is an inherited condition; Gilbert’s syndrome inhibits enzymes from processing bile excretion. When bile cannot travel through a bile duct properly, bilirubin builds up.
- Cholestasis: Cholestasis is a condition that slows the flow of bile from the liver through the bile duct.
- Ulcerative colitis: Ulcerative colitis can cause pericholangitis, another cholestatic condition that slows bile movement along bile ducts.
- Sarcoidosis: Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in various organs, including the liver.
- Amyloidosis: This autoimmune disorder causes amyloid to build up in your liver, damaging it, reducing its function, and causing jaundice.
- Pancreatitis: With inflammation of the pancreas, the organ cannot process bile. Both chronic and acute pancreatitis are painful conditions that require medical treatment.
Rarer conditions like Crigler-Najjar syndrome, Dubin-Johnson syndrome, and Pseudojaundice can also cause jaundice. Pseudojaundice is the only one not associated with increased bilirubin in the body.
Preventing jaundice means taking care of your body, which may prove challenging when you have a medical condition that makes you more prone to bilirubin buildup. Because jaundice so often occurs due to liver dysfunction, you should prioritize maintaining healthy liver function.
That can mean making lifestyle changes. Be sure to:
- Stay hydrated
- Avoid processed foods
- Exercise regularly
- Avoid alcohol and smoking
- Eat lean protein
- Get enough fibre in your diet
If you notice yellow eyes or jaundice, seek medical advice. Your doctor can test for specific conditions and check for liver problems. You can also work with a healthcare professional to create a diet to maintain a healthy and functional liver.
If you have yellow eyes, get medical advice from a healthcare professional immediately. Yellowing of the eyes usually signals another condition, and your doctor can run tests to diagnose you and find the source of jaundice.
Your doctor will conduct liver function tests (LFT), which will assess how well your liver is processing bilirubin. Liver function tests are a group of blood tests that indicate whether your liver is working right. If not, your doctor will prescribe medication and give you advice on how to correct or manage the problem.
Your doctor may also schedule an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI to assess your liver function. Because jaundice connects to your red blood cells and their breakdown, your doctor can order a complete blood count (CBC) to show whether your liver has trouble processing them.
If your jaundice does not relate to your liver, your doctor may move on to different tests to assess your gallbladder, including an ERCP and cholescintigraphy. These tests will show any blockages in your bile ducts.
Before you try home remedies or any other possible solutions for jaundice, ask your doctor for medical advice. Your doctor can tell you what may have caused your yellow eyes and give you more comprehensive treatment for them.
Treatment depends on the underlying source of your jaundice. Prehepatic jaundice arises from diseases like malaria and conditions like sickle cell anaemia. In these cases, your liver has not yet sustained lasting damage, but it does break down too many red blood cells and increases bilirubin in your skin.
For prehepatic jaundice, your doctor will prescribe medications and may order a blood transfusion, rehydration with an IV, or hydroxyurea if you have sickle cell disease.
Intrahepatic jaundice means you have some damage to your liver caused by infections or scarring. For infections, your doctor will prescribe antiviral medication. However, if you have scarring from alcohol use, you should stop drinking. You may also need a liver transplant to reduce the chances of liver failure.
Post-hepatic jaundice means you have one or more blocked bile ducts. Usually, these cases require surgery to remove the gallbladder, as well as some of the bile duct and pancreas. Gallbladder conditions will likely require the removal of the gallbladder.
According to Medical News Today, you can use the following home remedies to aid liver function and prevent jaundice:
- Liquorice root
- Milk thistle
- Coffee in moderation
- Vitamin E
Yellow eyes can signify a more severe condition like liver dysfunction. Many treatments can help cure or manage the disease, but you should see your doctor immediately for diagnosis, especially if you have other symptoms along with jaundice.