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Jaundice occurs when the reddish-yellow color in the blood and liver, bilirubin, builds up to abnormally high levels in the blood.


The skin, whites of the eye and other bodily fluids take on a yellow color.

Causes and Risk Factors

Jaundice can have many causes, from noncancerous (gallstones) to life threatening (pancreatic cancer). Jaundice can occur when a secretion called liver bile fails to reach the duodenum (part of the intestine). This may be caused by a blockage (gallstones), a liver problem, hepatitis (imflamed liver) or cancer in the head of the pancreas (a gland). Jaundice in babies 48 to 72 hours after birth is quite common and benign, lasting only a few days. There is also a rare, chronic type of jaundice caused by an increase in the destruction of red blood cells.


Finding out the actual cause is important for proper, timely treatment. Noninvasive methods for determining the cause include:

  • Ultrasound to create a "picture" using sound waves
  • Scans of the bile ducts
  • A minimally invasive procedure called ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography). This can be used to diagnose and to treat the condition.
  • Injecting a dye directly into the liver so that it appears more clearly during imaging procedures


If the jaundice is due to a gallstone, the doctor may do one of several surgical procedures. If jaundice is due to pancreatic or liver cancer, a wide range of cancer treatments might be recommended, depending on the stage, exact type and other factors.

© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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