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What Causes Jaundice in Babies and Adults?

What Causes Jaundice in Babies and Adults?

Jaundice is the medical term for the yellowish to brownish tinge on the skin or sclera (white of the eye). Sometimes, the body fluids and mucus membrane become yellow, too. Jaundice is common among newborn babies, but it may also happen in adults. What causes jaundice, and when should you worry about it? Find out here.

Why Jaundice Happens

Jaundice happens when there’s too much bilirubin in the blood (hyperbilirubinemia).

Bilirubin is a yellowish substance normally produced when red blood cells break down. It is found in the bile, a fluid released by the liver that helps break down food.

A healthy liver can eliminate most of the bilirubin in the body. However, when the liver sustains damage, bilirubin may leak out of it and go to the blood.

Too much bilirubin in the blood causes jaundice.

What Causes Jaundice in Babies?

Like mentioned earlier, jaundice is common in newborn babies. This is because babies have high levels of red blood cells that break down and get replaced immediately. Moreover, their liver is still not mature enough to efficiently get rid of bilirubin in the body.

At two weeks, babies have lower bilirubin levels, and their liver is better at eliminating excess bilirubin. In other words, it’s common for jaundice to resolve without treatment, and parents need not worry about it harming their little one.

Important note

Experts say breastfeeding increases the likelihood of jaundice, but there’s no need to stop breastfeeding, especially if the condition will clear on its own. Additionally, should your baby need treatment for jaundice, they would need extra fluid, so giving them breast milk is still beneficial.

Possible Underlying Conditions in Babies

While many cases of jaundice in babies are harmless, it’s still possible that an underlying health concern is causing the condition. Below are the potential causes of jaundice in babies:

  • Incompatible blood group. This happens when the mother and baby’s blood types are different and their blood mixed during pregnancy.
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Rhesus factor incompatibility. This occurs when the baby is rhesus-positive, and the mother is rhesus-negative.
  • An issue with the bile duct, gallbladder, or liver.
  • An issue with the red blood cells cause them to break down faster than normal.
  • Sepsis or infection in the blood
  • Hemorrhage

Please note that most hospitals have a policy on how to assess jaundice in newborns. If you bring your baby home early, bring them to the doctor if you notice jaundice, especially if they are not feeding well, look listless, and have high-pitched cries.

What Causes Jaundice in Adults?

Unlike in newborn babies, jaundice is rare in adults. When it occurs, it’s usually because the person is experiencing an underlying health concern.

Below are the possible causes of jaundice in adults:

  • Hemolytic anemia, where red blood cells are destroyed before their usual lifespan.
  • Reabsorption of hematoma, a collection of clotted blood under the skin.
  • Viral infections, like hepatitis A, infectious mononucleosis, and chronic hepatitis B and C.
  • Liver issues, such as cirrhosis
  • Heavy drinking
  • Certain medications
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Blockage or obstruction in bile ducts due to inflammation of the gallbladder, gallstones, gallbladder cancer, or pancreatic tumor.

Adults don’t need to receive treatment for jaundice, but the underlying concern must be addressed.

If it’s hepatitis A, the person may not require treatment other than increased fluid intake, getting adequate rest, and avoiding alcohol. If jaundice comes with itching, the doctor may also prescribe cholestyramine. Finally, if the doctor determines a blockage or obstruction, they may recommend surgery.

Consult your doctor as soon as you can if you notice jaundice, especially if you develop warning signs, such as black, tarry stool, severe abdominal pain, blood in the vomit, fever, and confusion.

Learn more about Health here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Bilirubin Blood Test, https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/bilirubin-blood-test/ Accessed September 14, 2021

Infant jaundice, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/infant-jaundice/symptoms-causes/syc-20373865 Accessed September 14, 2021

Newborn jaundice, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/jaundice-newborn/causes/ Accessed September 14, 2021

Adult Jaundice, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15367-adult-jaundice#:~:text=Jaundice Accessed September 14, 2021

Jaundice in Adults, https://www.msdmanuals.com/home/liver-and-gallbladder-disorders/manifestations-of-liver-disease/jaundice-in-adults Accessed September 14, 2021

Jaundice in adults, https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/jaundice#causes Accessed September 14, 2021

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Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. Updated 4 days ago
Fact Checked by Kristel Dacumos-Lagorza