Bilirubin is a waste product produced by the breakdown of hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells. Hemoglobin is made up of iron and heme, the compound that gives red blood cells their color.
Bilirubin levels in the blood depend on how much hemoglobin is functioning properly.
When hemoglobin breaks down, bilirubin is released into the blood. Bilirubin levels increase as red blood cells break down and new ones replenish the hemoglobin.
When bilirubin builds up in the blood, it can cause a condition known as jaundice. Jaundice occurs when the level of bilirubin in the blood is too high. Jaundice is a symptom of many different conditions, including:
- A blockage of the bile ducts
- Cystic fibrosis
- Bile duct cancer
- Gilbert’s syndrome
- Wilson’s disease
- Other conditions that affect the liver
If you develop jaundice, the main symptom is yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.
The following factors can increase the level of bilirubin in the blood:
- Alcohol abuse
- A lack of vitamin B-12
- Certain medications
- Certain genetic conditions
- Certain infections
- Certain types of cancer
- Certain liver diseases
In addition, a baby’s bilirubin level will increase in the first few months after birth as the liver tries to process bilirubin and make new red blood cells.
When to see a doctor?
See your doctor if you develop jaundice and other symptoms of a condition that can affect bilirubin levels, including:
- A yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
- Extreme weakness or fatigue
- A headache
- Loss of appetite
- Unintentional weight loss
Treatment for jaundice depends on what’s causing the problem and how severe it is.
Some conditions that can affect bilirubin levels and cause jaundice include:
- Gilbert’s syndrome, which occurs when a mother’s body makes too much bilirubin or cannot break it down properly
- Wilson’s disease, which occurs when a person has too much bilirubin in the bloodstream
- Other liver diseases that cause jaundice
- Diseases that affect the bile ducts, which is the duct that carries bile from the gallbladder to the intestines
Certain medications can also increase bilirubin levels. These include:
If you think you’ve developed a condition that can affect bilirubin levels and are concerned that you may be experiencing jaundice, see your doctor.
Your doctor may prescribe a medication that can reduce bilirubin levels.
This medication may be taken orally, intravenously, or through an IV.
If your treatment reduces bilirubin levels, the condition will eventually go away.
What are the symptoms of jaundice?
Jaundice is a symptom of many different conditions. Some may cause jaundice without having jaundice as a primary symptom.
In some cases, jaundice can be a primary symptom of a condition. Symptoms of jaundice include:
- Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
- General weakness
- A sore throat
- Abdominal pain
What causes jaundice?
The liver is responsible for making bilirubin, a yellow pigment that gives the skin and eyes their color.
Many factors can affect the levels of bilirubin in the blood, including:
- Alcohol use
- Certain medications that affect bilirubin levels
- Genetic conditions
- Diseases that affect the bile ducts
How is jaundice diagnosed?
Your doctor will examine your skin and the whites of the eyes to make a diagnosis. They will do a complete physical exam.
Your doctor may also ask you about your health history. They may ask questions about:
- Your overall health
- Your symptoms
- If you’ve recently had any medical procedures
- How you’re feeling
They may also order blood tests to look for signs of a condition that affects bilirubin levels.
How is jaundice treated?
Treatment depends on what’s causing the condition, how severe it is, and your age. If the underlying cause of the jaundice is known, your doctor can choose a treatment that can help reduce the bilirubin levels.
If you have jaundice, your doctor may prescribe:
- A medication that can reduce bilirubin levels
- A diet that can help reduce bilirubin levels
- A special procedure to drain a blockage in the bile ducts
What are the complications?
Some conditions that can affect bilirubin levels can cause jaundice. These include:
- Gilbert’s disease, a rare form of hereditary jaundice
- Wilson’s disease, a rare inherited disease that affects the bilirubin levels that the body makes
- Certain medications that can increase bilirubin levels
The following complications may occur due to jaundice:
- A skin infection
- Abdominal infections
- A blockage of the pancreas
- A blockage of bile ducts
What is the long-term outlook?
Some conditions that can affect bilirubin levels can be treated. This will help prevent the condition from getting worse.
A healthy lifestyle may also help. This includes a healthy diet, exercise, and a good night’s sleep.
What is the difference between total bilirubin and direct bilirubin?
Total bilirubin is the amount of bilirubin in the blood.
Direct bilirubin is the amount of bilirubin that’s directly related to the liver.
The levels of direct and total bilirubin can change throughout the day.
How do I reduce my bilirubin levels?
You can lower your bilirubin levels naturally by eating a healthy, balanced diet. In addition, you can also reduce your bilirubin levels with the following:
- Avoid alcohol.
- Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid processed foods.
Talk to your doctor about your diet and symptoms. They may be able to prescribe a diet or medication to help.
What is jaundice in newborns?
Jaundice is a symptom of many conditions in newborns. These include:
- Hyperbilirubinemia, which is a condition that causes high levels of bilirubin in the blood
- Preterm birth
- Birth defects that affect bilirubin levels in the blood
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
- Rh incompatibility, which occurs when the mother’s blood is incompatible with the baby’s blood
What’s the outlook?
Low bilirubin levels are usually not a cause for concern.
However, it’s important to get your bilirubin levels checked regularly. This is especially important if you are taking medications that can lower bilirubin levels.
Images by Freepik
Generated by AI