The alternative name for jaundice is icterus. It is a disorder involving yellow discolouration of the integument (tissues such as the skin and mucous membranes) caused by abnormal accumulation of bilirubin, a compound obtained from degradation of red blood cells. In early jaundice, the only symptom which may be seen is a change in the colour &nbsp of the white of theeyes.
Babies can be affected. They produce more red blood cells than adults and may develop excess bilirubin. Immaturity of the liver, which is unable to excrete the excess bilirubin, is then responsible for the jaundice. This is very common and is called physiological jaundice and resolves itself.
On the other hand, other forms are more serious. Cholestatic jaundice occurs despite normal functioning of the liver and normal levels of haemolysis (destruction of red blood cells). In this situation the bile is obstructed and cannot flow out normally. Bilirubin then passes into the blood. Above a certain level, the yellow pigment crosses the blood-brain barrier and seriously affects the brain, causing long term consequences. This form of jaundice is a medical emergency. In this situation, the baby's blood needs to be exchanged.
Jaundice in adults
Jaundice has several causes in adults:
Jaundice therefore reflects a physiological failure, the cause of which needs to be treated.
Bilirubin is a yellow pigment which discolours the eyes, skin and mucosal membranes. Jaundice may only be diagnosed in the early stages from the eyes. © Thomas F. Sellers/Emory University, DP