What Does Jaundice Look Like?

Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. Also known as icterus, jaundice is not a disease itself, but rather a symptom of various illnesses. Jaundice is the result of too much bilirubin in your body – that’s a yellow pigment that appears when dead red blood cells begin to break down in the liver. Though the liver usually filters out the bilirubin and dead blood cells, some problems with the function of your liver, gallbladder, pancreas and red blood cells can lead to jaundice. Read to learn more about the condition.

What Does Jaundice Look Like?

1.   Jaundice in Adults

In adults, jaundice usually begins on the face and progresses down the body, ending up at the feet. The higher the level of bilirubin, the more yellow the skin and eyes will appear – in fact, the color of the skin might change to brown instead of yellow. In addition, urine may turn darker, and stools may turn much lighter. Other symptoms associated with jaundice include:

  • Itching of the skin
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Little to no appetite
  • Fever and chills
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blood in the stool
  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain

Any of these signs indicate a serious problem, one that should be checked out by the physician.

2.   Jaundice in Newborn Babies

Small babies will often have jaundice within the first few days after birth. To check for it, press gently on the baby’s forehead or nose. Remove your hand quickly and look at the skin. If the area you pressed briefly turns yellow, jaundice is likely. If the area simply looks a little pale, jaundice is unlikely. You can also take your baby into good natural light and assess their skin color. Keep in mind that jaundice is harder to spot in babies who have darker skin tones, so look for yellowing in these areas:

  • Inside the mouth
  • In the whites of the eyes
  • On the soles of the feet
  • On the palms of the hands

In addition to knowing “what does jaundice look like?” it is important to recognize the signs of advanced jaundice. Call your doctor immediately if your baby shows any of these symptoms:

  • Skin that becomes more yellow with time
  • Yellow skin on the arms, legs or abdomen
  • Yellow whites of the eyes
  • High-pitched cries
  • Listlessness and difficulty awakening
  • A baby who seems generally ill
  • Not gaining weight and not feeding well
  • Jaundice that lingers for more than three weeks
  • Something that just seems ‘off’ about your baby and concerns you

How to Diagnose Jaundice

1.   Jaundice in Adults

When jaundice is suspected, the doctor will ask numerous questions, such as the following:

  • Do you have any flu-like symptoms?
  • Do you have itchy skin, abdominal pain or weight loss?
  • Do your urine and stool have a different color lately?
  • Have you recently traveled out of the country?
  • Are you taking drugs, or have you taken them in the past?
  • Do you have a history of alcohol abuse?
  • Are you in a profession where you might be exposed to harmful substances?

The doctor will also do a thorough physical examination, looking for numerous other issues such as swollen ankles or a swollen liver. These might indicate cirrhosis or hepatitis respectively.

The first question to answer is what does jaundice look like. Second, answer the question of what tests you need to take. After the examination is over, the doctor will likely run a few common tests. The first is a urine test, which will pinpoint the amount of urobilinogen; this builds up as bilirubin breaks down. The second is a blood test which will look for the enzymes and proteins in the blood. This can help determine what is happening to your liver and whether there is malaria or hepatitis C. Other potential tests include imaging, such as an ultrasound, MRI or CT scan, as well as a liver biopsy, which will offer a definitive look at what is happening.

2.   Jaundice in Newborn Babies

According to recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, all babies should be checked for jaundice after birth. This can be done in a few different ways:

  • A sample of blood can be taken from the baby’s heel in order to test bilirubin levels.
  • The physical exam of your baby will show signs of jaundice if there are any to find.
  • The skin test is performed with a small device that sits on the baby’s head and checks the bilirubin level. It works with a special light that shines through the skin. This doesn’t hurt your baby at all.

Jaundice tends to emerge between three and five days of life when the bilirubin level is highest. If your baby leaves the hospital in the first three days, be sure to check the bilirubin level within the next two days in an appointment.

How to Treat Jaundice

1.   Treating Jaundice in Adults

The treatment of jaundice depends upon its causes. If the problem is acute viral hepatitis, jaundice will disappear as the liver condition gradually improves. Itching often disappears as well. If it doesn’t, cholestyramine might help, but only if no bile ducts are completely blocked. If bile ducts are blocked, they can be opened through a procedure that uses instruments threaded through an endoscope.

In the end, jaundice does not require treatment in adults; however, the underlying causes should be closely watched or treated.

2.   Treating Jaundice in Newborn Babies

What does jaundice look like? Being able to spot it early is the best way to ensure proper treatment. Though most babies do not need treatment for mild jaundice, they should be encouraged to feed more often so they have more bowel movements; this will help clean the bilirubin from the system. But patience is required – the jaundice among fed-formula babies will likely clear up within two weeks, while among breast-fed babies, it usually clears up within three weeks. More severe cases of jaundice require treatment such as phototherapy treatment, exchange transfusion and intravenous immunoglobulin.

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