Jaundice in adults

Jaundice makes your skin yellow and can sometimes affect the whites of your eyes too. Jaundice in adults is relatively uncommon and can develop at any age.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021


As well as yellow skin and eyes, in some cases, jaundice symptoms include:

  • Very itchy skin (pruritus)
  • Dark-coloured, strong smelling urine
  • Stools that are either darker or lighter than normal

Jaundice can be caused by a benign (non-harmful) condition but it can also be a symptom of several serious conditions.

Causes of jaundice in adults

Jaundice occurs when your body has too much bilirubin, a yellow waste product expelled by your liver.

Some liver diseases cause high bilirubin levels and can seriously damage and scar your liver (cirrhosis). These include:

  • Alcoholic liver disease
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – if you’re overweight, you’re at a greater risk of developing this condition
  • Viral hepatitis – a serious infection
  • Primary biliary cirrhosis – an auto-immune disorder which tends to affect women from middle age

Other jaundice causes include:

  • Gallstones
  • Advanced chronic pancreatitis
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Certain cancers – including pancreatic and liver cancer
  • Some medicines, including antibiotics and medication to relieve epilepsy

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Getting a diagnosis for jaundice

If your skin or the white of your eyes look yellow, contact your GP immediately.

Your GP will also ask about any other jaundice symptoms and about your health in general and your medical history. They’ll also discuss your lifestyle, including any travel abroad, alcohol intake, diet and drug use.

Your GP will test your urine to check bilirubin levels and may do blood tests. If necessary, your GP will refer you for further investigations, perhaps a liver screening or ultrasound scan.

Depending on your results, your GP may arrange for you to see a consultant.

Treatment for jaundice in adults

Jaundice in adults requires prompt diagnosis and treatment for the underlying cause.

Once the cause of your jaundice has been diagnosed, your GP or consultant will arrange treatment for your condition. This may involve medical or surgical treatment (such as gallbladder/gallstone removal) and, if required, you’ll be admitted to hospital.