Jaundice (medical name 'icterus') is caused by a build up in the blood of a yellow coloured substance called 'bilirubin'. This occurs when red blood cells are broken down. Usually the liver takes the bilirubin and filters it through the kidneys for it to then be excreted in urine. If problems arise in the liver or biliary system then excess bilirubin is produced.
Common causes of jaundice include:
Hepatitis – The five hepatitis viruses (A,B,C,D,E) cause the liver to become inflamed. Acute hepatitis can be caused by excessive alcohol consumption or taking certain medicines.
Bile duct obstruction – Small tubes in the liver remove bile and if these become blocked or damaged the result can be a build up of bilirubin.
Anaemia – Haemolytic anaemia occurs when blood cells are destroyed by diseases such as malaria or autoimmune disease. This results in an increased production of bilirubin.
Gilbert's syndrome – This is an inherited condition which prevents enzymes in the body from functioning and preventing the processing bile.
Newborn jaundice – Known as neonatal jaundice, this problem affects over half of all babies in the first week of life and occurs because of the liver not being fully developed to deal with bilirubin. The condition usually clears without treatment after a week.
Other conditions that cause jaundice, although rare, include: Crigler-Najjar syndrome, Dubin-Johnson syndrome, Rotor's syndrome, Pseudojaundice.