Medically Approved

Are your eyes yellow? Here’s what it could mean.

Woman looking at yellowed eyes in the mirror

Here are 5 conditions that could be causing the whites of your eyes to look a little too much like the yolks of an egg.

Jessica Migala

By Jessica Migala

Looking in the mirror, do you notice that something looks off? Are the whites of your eyes a bit yellow — or is that the lighting in the room? Does your skin have a bit of a tinge, too?

If you answered yes, you may have jaundice. It’s a condition that occurs “due to an abundant amount of bilirubin in the body,” explains Steven R. Young, MD. He’s a gastroenterologist at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. When it’s time for red blood cells to retire, the body breaks them down mainly in the liver and spleen. During that process, a yellowish substance called bilirubin is formed.

Normally, the liver does a fine job of processing bilirubin. But if it can’t get it out of the body, it builds up — and you can see yellowing of the whites of eyes and skin.

Seeing this sign is important — and even lucky — because it’s an SOS from your body that there’s something going on that you need to get checked out. Often, it’s a family member who notices this yellowing and asks their loved one to see a doctor, says Kenneth Sigman, MD. He’s chief of the division of gastroenterology at Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

Other initial signs of jaundice can be unexplained skin itching and a change in the color of your urine from light yellow to dark yellow, or even a dark cola shade, says Dr. Sigman. As things progress, you may also notice general weakness and lethargy, a decrease in appetite and nausea.

If you suspect you may have jaundice, reach out to your doctor or schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist. If you can’t reach your doctor, Dr. Young advises going to an urgent care center or an emergency department. You may get a blood test (to determine your bilirubin level) and an ultrasound or CT scan to pinpoint or help narrow down the cause, he says.

The important thing is that you don’t wait. “There are many different causes of jaundice,” says Dr. Sigman. “Some causes are very benign, others malignant, but all are very important. It’s not something to mess around with.”

Below are 5 of the most common reasons you may have jaundice. To know what’s really going on, though, it’s best to see your doctor for an evaluation.

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Jaundice cause #1: Hepatitis

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Long-term heavy drinking and certain medications can damage the liver, causing inflammation. But the most common cause in the United States is viral infection (hepatitis A, B or C). “These viruses directly attack liver cells, disrupting the normal chemistry of the liver and causing the buildup of bilirubin,” explains Dr. Sigman.

While there are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, which you likely received as a young child, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. In fact, it goes undetected in half of people infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Hepatitis C can be treated with medication. But if it’s not managed, hepatitis C can develop into cirrhosis and lead to cancer or the need for a liver transplant. The CDC currently recommends that everyone over the age of 18 get tested for hepatitis C.

Jaundice cause #2: Cirrhosis

Jaundice is a symptom of late-stage cirrhosis, says Dr. Young. This condition happens when the liver responds to damage, such as chronic hepatitis, by laying down scar tissue. This scarring impacts function and can lead to liver failure, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Cirrhosis is most commonly caused by heavy alcohol use, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) or hepatitis C. However, it can also be caused by hepatitis B and various autoimmune and genetic disorders,” explains Dr. Young.

Cirrhosis can’t be reversed or cured. But the goal is to pinpoint the underlying problem and treat it to prevent its progression. For example, if the cause is NAFLD, doctors will advise eating a healthy diet and exercising more. (NAFLD is a common liver disease. Get the details here.)

Jaundice cause #3: Blocked bile duct

The liver makes a concoction of cholesterol, salts and bilirubin called bile. The liver ships that bile through tubes called bile ducts to the gallbladder (where it’s stored) and your digestive tract, where it helps digest food.

A physical blockage of a duct — from a gallstone, growth or tumor — can disrupt this flow, leading to jaundice, says Dr. Sigman. Infection of the bile duct can also cause narrowing, blocking bile.

Treatment can involve removing stones or the gallbladder entirely or performing a procedure that widens the bile duct itself, according to the National Library of Medicine.

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Jaundice cause #4: Pancreatic cancer

Jaundice is often one of the first symptoms of pancreatic cancer that people notice, according to the American Cancer Society. If the pancreatic tumor is in the head of the pancreas, it can block the common bile duct. That can cause yellowing of the eyes and changes in urine color.

This is an alarming potential cause of jaundice. But the good news is that it may help detect pancreatic cancer earlier, when it’s more treatable.

Other symptoms include stomach or back pain, unexplained weight loss, nausea and vomiting. Don’t wait to get these symptoms checked out.

Related reading: Your questions about cancer-related pain, answered.

Jaundice cause #5: Medications

“There are hundreds of drugs that have been implicated in causing liver dysfunction and jaundice,” says Dr. Sigman. One example: overdosing on acetaminophen (Tylenol®). Many over-the-counter medications, such as cold medicines, contain acetaminophen. So overdoing it can happen unintentionally.

When medication is suspected of causing a liver injury, your doctor can do research through a medical platform to see whether liver problems and jaundice are potential side effects.

If you notice symptoms of jaundice, don’t panic. The important thing is that you noticed it, and now you can join your health care team in finding the cause. It may just save your life.

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Additional sources
The basics of viral hepatitis:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Common symptoms of cirrhosis: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
How bile duct obstructions are treated: National Library of Medicine
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer: American Cancer Society
Common questions about pancreatic cancer, answered: Johns Hopkins Medicine

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