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Jaundice occurs when the bile pigment, bilirubin, builds up to abnormally high levels in the blood. The skin, whites of the eye, mucous membranes and bodily fluids then take on a yellowish cast. Jaundice can have many causes, from benign (gallstones) to life threatening (pancreatic cancer). Correctly diagnosing the underlying cause is essential for proper, timely treatment.
There are several ways to find what is causing the jaundice. Noninvasive methods include ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), laboratory studies and clinical evaluation. Minimally invasive techniques include cholangiography (which creates an image of bile ducts), endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) and percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (injecting an image-enhancing dye directly into the liver).
Jaundice can occur when liver bile fails to reach the duodenum, because of a blockage (gallstones) or a liver malfunction. It can also be caused by hepatitis and cancer in the head of the pancreas. (Jaundice in babies 48 to 72 hours after birth is quite common, and thankfully benign, lasting only a few days.) In addition, there is a rare, chronic type of jaundice caused by an increase in the destruction of red blood cells.
Screening and Prevention
We cannot screen specifically for jaundice or prevent it. The Pancreatic and Biliary Diseases Program does provide screening and prevention information and services for gallstones and pancreatic cancer.
If the jaundice is due to a gallstone, the doctor may do a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, open cholecystectomy or endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography. If the jaundice is due to pancreatic or liver cancer, a wide range of cancer treatments might be recommended, depending on the stage, exact type, etc.