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Yellow Eyes

Yellowing of the eyes occurs if you have jaundice. Jaundice occurs when the oxygen-carrying components in the blood, called hemoglobin, break down into bilirubin and your body doesn’t clear the bilirubin. Bilirubin is supposed to move from the liver to the bile ducts, and then your body should release it in your stool. If any part of this process doesn’t occur, bilirubin builds up in your skin and causes it to appear yellow. This also can occur in your eyes.

The white portion of the eye is known as the sclera. Healthy eye tissue should appear white. Yellowing of the eyes suggests there’s an underlying medical condition present.

What conditions can cause yellowing of the eyes?

Yellowing of the eyes can occur due to dysfunction of:

  • the liver
  • the gallbladder
  • the pancreas
  • multiple organs

Conditions that affect the liver

The liver performs numerous important functions for the body, including breaking down red blood cells. Conditions that affect the liver’s functioning can lead to yellowing of the eyes. Liver scarring, or cirrhosis, commonly causes this to occur. Conditions that can cause cirrhosis include:

  • alcohol abuse
  • liver cancer
  • liver infection
  • non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is a condition that commonly occurs in obese people
  • hepatitis B and C

Hepatitis A, D, and E can also cause jaundice, but these are less common causes of jaundice than hepatitis B and C.

Genetic conditions

Doctors link some genetic conditions with causing cirrhosis. These conditions include hemochromatosis, which causes excess iron to collect in the liver and affect its function. Wilson’s disease causes excess copper buildup in the liver. Porphyria is another cause. This combination of genetic disorders causes the body to build up excess porphyrin. Your body needs these compounds to form hemoglobin.

Conditions that may affect the liver can also cause:

  • appetite loss
  • nausea
  • sudden weight loss
  • unexplained fatigue

Conditions that affect the gallbladder

The liver produces bile that then collects in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is responsible for releasing bile to help your body digest fats. It connects back to the liver via the bile ducts. Jaundice can occur if the bile ducts become blocked. This blockage is most commonly due to gallstones. Other causes include cysts, tumors, or gallbladder inflammation.

Gallbladder obstruction can also cause:

  • chills
  • a fever
  • stomach pain
  • unexplained weight loss

Conditions that affect the pancreas

The pancreatic duct and the bile duct join to drain into the small intestine. If the pancreatic duct becomes diseased or obstructed, bile may not drain properly and jaundice can occur. Pancreatic cancer can cause this condition.

Excess bilirubin may also result in dark urine, light-colored stools, and skin itching.

Jaundice due to conditions that affect the pancreas is less common than jaundice due to:

  • bile duct diseases
  • gallstones
  • hepatitis
  • other liver diseases

Blood disorders

An abnormal breakdown of red blood cells or the impaired excretion of bilirubin may also cause yellowing of the eyes. For this reason, conditions that affect the lifespan of red blood cells or their production can cause yellowing of the eyes. This includes:

  • drug-induced immune hemolytic anemia
  • an incompatibility reaction from a blood transfusion, which is considered a medical emergency
  • sickle cell anemia

What misconceptions exist about the causes of yellowing of the eyes?

Consuming excess foods high in vitamin A, or beta carotene, cause yellowing of the skin. These foods include carrots, squash, and melons. These foods can affect the skin, but they shouldn’t cause yellowing of the eyes. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN
Medically reviewed on: Apr 22, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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