What do yellow eyes mean and are they a concern?
Jaundice in adults happens most often with liver conditions. The yellow color that affects your eyes and skin results from a buildup of bilirubin, a substance your body produces when breaking down red blood cells.
Infants may experience newborn jaundice. This temporary condition occurs as their liver matures and gets better at processing bilirubin.
It’s important to seek prompt medical treatment for any signs of yellowing in your eyes or skin. Jaundice is a primary indicator of conditions that affect the liver, gallbladder, spleen, and pancreas.
Other initial signs of jaundice can include unexplained skin itching and a change in urine color from light yellow to dark yellow or even a dark cola shade. Progressive symptoms may include general weakness and lethargy, a decrease in appetite, and nausea.
What causes yellow eyes?
“There are many different causes of jaundice,” said Kenneth Sigman, MD, chief of the division of gastroenterology at Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama. “Some causes are very benign, others malignant, but all are very important. It’s not something to mess around with.”
Common causes of yellow eyes from jaundice in adults include the following.
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, and jaundice in your eyes and skin can indicate hepatitis.
Often, this inflammation results from a virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
“These viruses directly attack liver cells, disrupting the normal chemistry of the liver and causing the buildup of bilirubin,” explained Dr. Sigman.
The American Liver Association reports that as many as 75% of people with chronic hepatitis C do not know they have it. The CDC currently recommends that everyone over the age of 18 years get tested for hepatitis C.
Inflammation of the liver can also result from long-term excessive consumption of alcohol. Certain medications can also cause liver damage, resulting in inflammation.
Jaundice is a symptom of late-stage cirrhosis. This condition happens when your liver responds to damage, such as chronic hepatitis, by creating scar tissue. This scarring affects the liver’s function and can lead to liver failure.
“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,” explained Steven R. Young, MD, a gastroenterologist at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.
Blocked bile duct
Your liver produces a substance called bile that is a mix of cholesterol, salts, and bilirubin. The liver sends bile through tubes, called bile ducts, to your gallbladder (where it’s stored) and your digestive tract (where it helps digest food).
A physical blockage of a bile duct — from a gallstone, growth, or tumor — can disrupt this flow, said Dr. Sigman. Infection of the bile duct can also cause narrowing of the duct, leading to a blockage of bile.
This backup of bile can result in a buildup of bilirubin that can, in turn, cause yellow eyes or skin.
If a pancreatic tumor is in the head of the pancreas, it can block the common bile duct. That can cause yellowing of your eyes and changes in urine color.
Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
- stomach or back pain
- unexplained weight loss
Talk with a doctor or other healthcare professional right away if you notice signs of jaundice, particularly in combination with other symptoms. Early detection of conditions like pancreatic cancer is essential to improving the likelihood of successful treatment.
Hundreds of drugs could cause liver problems and jaundice, said Dr. Sigman.
One example is acetaminophen (Tylenol). Because many over-the-counter medications, such as cold medications, contain acetaminophen, you could unintentionally take too much of the drug.
If you develop yellow eyes or skin, a doctor may check the medications you’re currently taking to see whether any of them may cause jaundice as a side effect.
What are treatment options for yellow eyes?
Treatment for yellowing of the eyes focuses on addressing the underlying condition causing the jaundice.
Viral hepatitis treatment
Vaccination for hepatitis A and B, which you likely received as an infant, is an essential step in preventing infection. There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C.
There is no medication for the hepatitis A virus. Treatment for hepatitis A infection focuses on managing symptoms through rest, fluids, and nutrition.
Treatment for viral hepatitis B and C infection centers on antiviral medications that work to reduce the amount of virus in a person’s body.
Hepatitis B antivirals include:
Antivirals for hepatitis C include:
- sofosbuvir/velpatasvir (Epclusa)
- sofosbuvir/ledipasvir (Harvoni)
- glecaprevir/pibrentasvir (Mavyret)
- elbasvir/grazoprevir (Zapatier)
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While most cases of cirrhosis do not have a definitive cure, treatments are available to help you manage the symptoms and possibly limit the progression of the disease.
Your doctor may recommend medications to manage cirrhosis, including:
- diuretics, such as furosemide and spironolactone, to relieve fluid retention
- antibiotics, such as amoxicillin and ciprofloxacin, to treat bacterial infections
- acid-suppressing medications, such as esomeprazole and famotidine, to manage digestive symptoms
- lactulose, to treat the buildup of toxins in the body that can affect your ability to think
- non-selective beta-blockers, in cases of high blood pressure in the portal vein in the abdomen
This is only a selection of the available treatments for cirrhosis symptoms. A liver specialist can explain the full range of options and help develop the right treatment plan for you.
If you need help covering the cost of medications, the free Optum Perks Discount Card could help you save up to 80% on prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.
Blocked bile duct treatment
Treatment for a blocked bile duct can involve removing stones or the gallbladder entirely or performing a procedure that widens the bile duct. This allows bile to flow more easily and avoid the buildup of bilirubin that can make your eyes appear yellow.
Pancreatic cancer treatment
Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on factors such as the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis. A pancreatic cancer treatment plan may include:
- targeted therapy
- surgery to remove part or all of the pancreas and other surrounding organs
- pain management
- nutrition therapy
- new treatments in clinical trials
What are misconceptions about yellow eyes?
A common misconception is that eating certain foods can cause yellowing of the eyes.
While it is true that foods high in carotene can give your skin a yellow or orange tint, the whites of your eyes (sclera) are not affected by these foods.
Yellow eyes are a symptom of jaundice, which is a condition caused by a buildup of bilirubin in your body. Jaundice can also make your skin appear yellow.
Yellowing of the eyes from jaundice can happen with conditions such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and pancreatic cancer. Certain medications can also cause yellow eyes as a side effect.
Because conditions associated with yellowing eyes can be serious, it’s important to talk with a doctor or other healthcare professional right away if you develop symptoms of jaundice. By getting an accurate diagnosis, you may find an effective treatment plan for the condition causing yellow in your eyes.
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CE CD to IE CM 10/27: FYI, I added Sigman and Young to the resources list below in the usual personal interview format. If the interviews did not happen in 2023, please adjust the date accordingly. Thanks!
- Coucke EM, et al. (2022). Biliary obstruction. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539698/
- Edigin E, et al. (2019). Carotenemia: a case report. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6758952/
- Gentile JA, et al. (2020). Drug considerations for medication therapy in cirrhosis. https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/drug-considerations-for-medication-therapy-in-cirrhosis
- Hepatitis A: Questions and answers for the public. (2020). https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hav/afaq.htm
- Hepatitis B. (2023). https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hepatitis-b
- Hepatitis C information center. (2023). https://liverfoundation.org/liver-diseases/viral-hepatitis/hepatitis-c/
- Hepatitis C medications: An overview for patients. (n.d.). https://www.hepatitis.va.gov/products/treatment-update.asp
- Pancreatic cancer treatment (PDQ)—patient version. (2023). https://www.cancer.gov/types/pancreatic/patient/pancreatic-treatment-pdq
- Sigman K. (2023). Personal interview.
- Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. (2019). https://www.cancer.org/cancer/types/pancreatic-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-and-symptoms.html
- What is viral hepatitis? (2023). https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/abc/index.htm
- Young SR. (2023). Personal interview.