Jaundice (cont.)

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What diseases cause jaundice?

Increased production of bilirubin

There are several uncommon conditions that give rise to over-production of bilirubin. The bilirubin in the blood in these conditions usually is only mildly elevated, and the resultant jaundice usually is mild and difficult to detect. These conditions include:

  1. rapid destruction of red blood cells (referred to as hemolysis);
  2. a defect in the formation of red blood cells (erythropoieses) that leads to the over-production of hemoglobin in the bone marrow (called ineffective erythropoiesis);
  3. absorption of large amounts of hemoglobin when there has been much bleeding into tissues (for example, from hematomas, collections of blood in the tissues).

Acute inflammation of the liver

Any condition in which the liver becomes inflamed can reduce the ability of the liver to conjugate (attach glucuronic acid to) and secrete bilirubin. Common examples include acute viral hepatitis, alcoholic hepatitis, and Tylenol-induced liver toxicity.

Chronic liver diseases

Chronic inflammation of the liver can lead to scarring and cirrhosis, and can ultimately result in jaundice. Common examples include chronic hepatitis B and C, alcoholic liver disease with cirrhosis, and autoimmune hepatitis.

Infiltrative diseases of the liver

Infiltrative diseases of the liver refer to diseases in which the liver is filled with cells or substances that don't belong there. The most common example would be metastatic cancer to the liver, usually from cancers within the abdomen. Uncommon causes include a few diseases in which substances accumulate within the liver cells, for example, iron (hemochromatosis), alpha-one antitrypsin (alpha-one antitrypsin deficiency), and copper (Wilson's disease).

Inflammation of the bile ducts

Diseases causing inflammation of the bile ducts, for example, primary biliary cirrhosis or sclerosing cholangitis, and some drugs, can reduce the flow of bile and elimination of bilirubin leading to jaundice.

Blockage of the bile ducts

The most common causes of blockage of the bile ducts are gallstones and pancreatic cancer. Less common causes include cancers of the liver and bile ducts.


Many drugs can cause cholestasis with or without jaundice. Some drugs can cause liver inflammation (hepatitis) similar to viral hepatitis. Other drugs can cause inflammation of the bile ducts, resulting in cholestasis and/or jaundice. Drugs also may interfere directly with the chemical processes within the cells of the liver and bile ducts that are responsible for the formation and secretion of bile into the bile ducts or the intestine. As a result, the constituents of bile, including bilirubin, are retained in the body. The best example of a drug that causes this latter type of cholestasis and jaundice is estrogen. The primary treatment for jaundice caused by drugs is discontinuation of the drug. Almost always the bilirubin levels return to normal within a few weeks, though in a few cases it may take several months.

Genetic disorders

There are several rare genetic disorders present from birth that give rise to jaundice. Crigler-Najjar syndrome is caused by a defect in the conjugation of bilirubin in the liver due to a reduction or absence of an enzyme responsible for conjugating the glucuronic acid to bilirubin. Dubin-Johnson and Rotor's syndromes are caused by abnormal secretion of bilirubin into bile.

The only common genetic disorder that may cause cholestasis and sometimes jaundice is Gilbert's syndrome which affects approximately 7% of the population. Gilbert's syndrome is caused by a mild reduction in the activity of the enzyme responsible for conjugating glucuronic acid with bilirubin. The increase in bilirubin in the blood usually is mild and infrequently reaches levels that cause jaundice. Gilbert's syndrome is a benign condition that does not cause health problems, although patients with Gilbert's syndrome may develop gallstones more frequently.

Developmental abnormalities of bile ducts

There are rare instances in which the bile ducts do not develop normally and the flow of bile is interrupted. Jaundice frequently occurs. These diseases usually are present from birth though some of them may first be recognized in childhood or even adulthood. Cysts of the bile duct (choledochal cysts) are an example of such a developmental abnormality. Another example is Caroli's disease.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/28/2014

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