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Low Bilirubin: Why Jaundice Isn’t Only a Problem for Babies

If you’re a parent, you might be familiar with jaundice—it’s common in newborns, though it can develop in people of any age. Jaundice is a condition that develops when bilirubin builds up in the blood. Bilirubin is a substance that naturally occurs when your body breaks down red blood cells. Normally, your liver and gut reduce the bilirubin levels. But that process doesn’t always work properly in new babies.

Jaundice is common in babies because their livers are just starting to work properly. Before they are born, the mother processes the bilirubin. “In newborns, the liver isn’t fully developed, and the gut doesn’t have its normal bacteria yet. So, babies can have trouble processing the bilirubin for the first two to three weeks,” said Shaun Brancheau, DO, a family medicine specialist at Banner Health Center in Queen Creek, AZ. Premature babies and babies of Eastern Asian descent might have trouble for longer.

Since jaundice in newborns is so common, checking for it is part of their routine screening. In babies, elevated bilirubin levels usually go away on their own without intervention or treatment. “A baby with jaundice should stay well-hydrated with breast milk or formula,” Dr. Brancheau said. If babies need treatment, regular exposure to sunlight or special bili lights that help break down the bilirubin through the skin can help.

What are the signs of jaundice?

Both babies and adults with jaundice have yellowing of the skin or in the whites of the eyes. It can be harder to spot jaundice in people with darker skin tones—the yellowing can show up on the gums or inner lips. Sometimes people have flu-like symptoms, belly pain, dark-colored urine or light-colored stools. If the bilirubin levels get high enough, people could notice itching. If jaundice is suspected, your doctor can run a bilirubin test.

What causes jaundice in adults?

While babies with jaundice typically have immature livers, adults with jaundice could have an underlying condition causing liver problems. Possible explanations or risk factors could be:

  • Genetic disorders. Inherited conditions such as Gilbert syndrome can raise bilirubin levels. 
  • Liver disease. When your liver is damaged by disease, it can’t properly process red blood cells, and bilirubin builds up.
  • Hepatitis and Epstein-Barr. These viruses can cause jaundice.
  • Liver or gallbladder blockages. Blockages can keep your liver from functioning correctly, raising bilirubin levels.
  • Pancreatic cancer. This type of cancer can block the bile duct so your liver can’t process bilirubin properly.

How is jaundice treated in adults?

Treating jaundice depends on the underlying condition that’s causing it. You may not need treatment for jaundice caused by conditions such as Gilbert syndrome as long as your bilirubin levels do not get too high. 

For other causes, you don’t treat jaundice directly. Instead, you generally treat the underlying condition that’s causing bilirubin levels to rise—then the jaundice will resolve itself. If you have a blockage, you might need surgery to clear it, and various treatments could help if it’s a disease or infection that’s causing your jaundice. “But everyone with jaundice can benefit from sunlight or bili lights. Sunlight works best,” Dr. Brancheau said.

How can you prevent jaundice?

The best strategy is to take care of your health and your liver. Choose a nutritious diet centered around veggies, fruit and whole grains and maintain a healthy body weight. Alcohol can damage your liver, so if you drink, limit consumption to no more than one drink a day for women and two for men. Ask your doctor if you should be vaccinated for hepatitis A and B. And practice safe sex since hepatitis C can be sexually transmitted. 

If you notice any abdominal pain, or changes in your skin, eye, urine or stool color, tell your doctor right away. Your doctor can evaluate you for jaundice and diagnose any underlying conditions that could be causing it. 

The bottom line

Jaundice—a condition where your body doesn’t process bilirubin properly—is common in newborns, but it can strike adults as well. It can signal a problem with your liver. If you are concerned about jaundice or your liver health and you would like to talk to a medical professional, reach out to Banner Health. 

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