A condition in which the skin appears to turn yellow may be a sign that jaundice is present. This condition is caused by an excess accumulation of bilirubin, a bile pigment, in the blood. Since bilirubin is a coloring compound, any disorder of the bile duct or liver that causes the pigment to escape into the bloodstream can result to jaundice. Apart from the skin, the whites of the eyes as well as the mucous membranes may manifest yellow discoloration in jaundice.
Rather than a disease, jaundice is actually a symptom which may occur under any of three conditions: when the flow of bile is impeded, when damage to red blood cells is increased, and when the liver becomes incapacitated.
In the first circumstance, the bilirubin backs up and accumulates in the blood, causing jaundice in the process. This type of jaundice has two major causes. The first is the lodgment of a gallstone in the common bile duct. The second is the occurrence of a cancer in the head of the pancreas where it exerts pressure upon the common bile duct. In both instances, the flow of bile is prevented.
In the second circumstance, there is too great an amount of bilirubin that is transported to the liver for final disposal, and some of the excess pigment finds its way into the spaces between the tissue cells; this causes the yellow color characteristic in jaundice. Certain conditions may cause this type of jaundice, which include malaria, yellow fever, and pneumococcal pneumonia.
In the third circumstance, certain kinds of liver disease causes failure in the liver’s capacity to dispose of the normal amount of bilirubin delivered to it by the blood. In such a case, the amount of bilirubin in the blood increases and jaundice occurs. Hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver are the two usual conditions that cause this type of jaundice.
Note that the type of jaundice which occurs in the third circumstance is referred to as medical jaundice, while that which occurs in the first circumstance is called surgical jaundice. Treatment of the disease that causes medical jaundice is the key to solving the problem. On the other hand, surgery is often required to remove the obstruction to the flow of the bile, as in the case given in the first circumstance.
At the first sign of jaundice, consult a physician; do not attempt home treatment. Drinking plenty of water can help flush away the bile through the urine.
1. Wikipedia, “Jaundice” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaundice
2. MedicineNet.com, “Jaundice” – http://www.medicinenet.com/jaundice/article.htm
3. MedlinePlus, “Jaundice – yellow skin,” updated 5/8/2008 by Dr. Neil K. Kaneshiro; reviewed by Dr. David Zieve – http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003243.htm