Understanding the Liver


Someone with jaundice is likely to have a yellow look to their skin and the whites of the eyes. Jaundice is caused by a build-up of bilirubin in the blood and body tissue. That build-up is often due to conditions affecting the liver, such as cirrhosis, hepatitis or gallstones.


The classic yellow tinge to the skin and whites of the eyes, someone with jaundice
may also have yellowing of mucous membranes in the mouth and nose.
Stools can be pale in colour and urine dark in colour.
Some underlying conditions, which lead to jaundice, may feel like flu, and may also result in fever, chills, stomach pain, itching or weight-loss


The yellowing of skin and eyes are likely to be the main clues a doctor will use before confirming a jaundice diagnosis. A person will be asked about other symptoms and risks, such as foreign travel or drug misuse. A physical examination will be carried out to look for signs of swelling of the liver and legs, ankles or feet, which might indicate cirrhosis of the liver. Urine can be tested for urobilinogen, which is produced when bilirubin is broken down.


When red blood cells break down naturally in a 120-day cycle, bilirubin is produced as a waste by-product. The journey bilirubin takes out of the body’s waste disposal systems sees it carried by blood to the liver. There is it combined with bile (digestive fluid) from the gallbladder. This mixture exits the body through faeces and urine. If everything is working well, faeces should be brown and urine light yellow.


The treatment given to someone with jaundice will depend on what type they have, how serious it is and what caused it. It may include tackling an underlying condition such as malaria and bothersome symptoms, such as itching. For genetic conditions that don’t get better, like sickle cell anaemia, a blood transfusion may be given to replenish red blood cells in the body.

If the bile duct system is blocked, an operation may be needed to unblock it. During these procedures measures may be taken to help prevent further problems, such as removal of the gallbladder. If the liver is found to be seriously damaged, a transplant may be an option.

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