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Jaundice, also known as icterus (attributive adjective: "icteric"), is a yellowish discoloration of the skin, the conjunctival membranes over the sclerae (whites of the eyes), and other mucous membranes caused by hyperbilirubinemia (increased levels of bilirubin in the blood). This hyperbilirubinemia subsequently causes increased levels of bilirubin in the extracellular fluids. Typically, the concentration of bilirubin in the plasma must exceed 1.5 mg/dL, three times the usual value of approximately 0.5mg/dL, for the coloration to be easily visible. Jaundice comes from the French word jaune, meaning yellow.
One of the first tissues to change color as bilirubin levels rise in jaundice is the conjunctiva of the eye, a condition sometimes referred to as scleral icterus. However, the sclera themselves are not "icteric" (stained with bile pigment) but rather the conjunctival membranes that overlie them. The yellowing of the "white of the eye" is thus more properly conjunctival icterus. See photographic illustration at right.
In order to understand how jaundice results, the pathological processes that cause jaundice to take their effect must be understood. Jaundice itself is not a disease, but rather a sign of one of many possible underlying pathological processes that occurs at some point along the normal physiological pathway of the metabolism of bilirubin.
When red blood cells have completed their life span of approximately 120 days, or when they are damaged, their membranes become fragile and prone to rupture. As each red blood cell traverses through the reticuloendothelial system, its cell membrane ruptures when its membrane is fragile enough to allow this. Cellular contents, including hemoglobin, are subsequently released into the blood. The hemoglobin is phagocytosed by macrophages, and split into its heme and globin portions. The globin portion, being protein, is degraded into amino acids and plays no further role in jaundice. Two reactions then take place with the heme molecule. The first oxidation reaction is catalyzed by the microsomal enzyme heme oxygenase and results in biliverdin (green color pigment), iron and carbon monoxide. The next step is the reduction of biliverdin to a yellow color tetrapyrol pigment called bilirubin by cytosolic enzyme biliverdin reductase. This bilirubin is "unconjugated", "free" or "indirect" bilirubin. Approximately 4 mg per kg of bilirubin is produced each day. The majority of this bilirubin comes from the breakdown of heme from expired red blood cells in the process just described. However approximately 20 per cent comes from other heme sources, including ineffective erythropoiesis, breakdown of other heme-containing proteins, such as muscle myoglobin and cytochromes.
The unconjugated bilirubin then travels to the liver through the bloodstream. Because this bilirubin is not soluble, however, it is transported through the blood bound to serum albumin. Once it arrives at the liver, it is conjugated with glucuronic acid (to form bilirubin diglucuronide, or just "conjugated bilirubin") to become more water soluble. The reaction is catalyzed by the enzyme UDP-glucuronide transferase.
This conjugated bilirubin is excreted from the liver into the biliary and cystic ducts as part of bile. Intestinal bacteria convert the bilirubin into urobilinogen. From here the urobilinogen can take two pathways. It can either be further converted into stercobilinogen, which is then oxidized to stercobilin and passed out in the faeces, or it can be reabsorbed by the intestinal cells, transported in the blood to the kidneys, and passed out in the urine as the oxidised product urobilin. Stercobilin and urobilin are the products responsible for the coloration of faeces and urine, respectively.
When a pathological process interferes with the normal functioning of the metabolism and excretion of bilirubin just described, jaundice may be the result. Jaundice is classified into three categories, depending on which part of the physiological mechanism the pathology affects. The three categories are:
- Pre-hepatic: The pathology is occurring prior the liver
- Hepatic: The pathology is located within the liver
- Post-Hepatic: The pathology is located after the conjugation of bilirubin in the liver
Pre-hepatic jaundice is caused by anything which causes an increased rate of hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells). In tropical countries, malaria can cause jaundice in this manner. Certain genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia, spherocytosis and glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency can lead to increased red cell lysis and therefore hemolytic jaundice. Commonly, diseases of the kidney, such as hemolytic uremic syndrome, can also lead to coloration. Defects in bilirubin metabolism also present as jaundice. Jaundice usually comes with high fevers. Rat fever (leptospirosis) can also cause jaundice.
Laboratory findings include:
- Urine: no bilirubin present, urobilirubin > 2 units (except in infants where gut flora has not developed).
- Serum: increased unconjugated bilirubin.
Hepatic jaundice causes include acute hepatitis, hepatotoxicity and alcoholic liver disease, whereby cell necrosis reduces the liver's ability to metabolise and excrete bilirubin leading to a buildup in the blood. Less common causes include primary biliary cirrhosis, Gilbert's syndrome (a genetic disorder of bilirubin metabolism which can result in mild jaundice, which is found in about 5% of the population), Crigler-Najjar syndrome, metastatic carcinoma and Niemann-Pick disease, type C. Jaundice seen in the newborn, known as neonatal jaundice, is common, occurring in almost every newborn as hepatic machinery for the conjugation and excretion of bilirubin does not fully mature until approximately two weeks of age.
Laboratory Findings include:
- Urine: Conjugated bilirubin present, Urobilirubin > 2 units but variable (Except in children)
Post-hepatic jaundice, also called obstructive jaundice, is caused by an interruption to the drainage of bile in the biliary system. The most common causes are gallstones in the common bile duct, and pancreatic cancer in the head of the pancreas. Also, a group of parasites known as "liver flukes" live in the common bile duct, causing obstructive jaundice. Other causes include strictures of the common bile duct, biliary atresia, ductal carcinoma, pancreatitis and pancreatic pseudocysts. A rare cause of obstructive jaundice is Mirizzi's syndrome.
The presence of pale stools and dark urine suggests an obstructive or post-hepatic cause as normal feces get their color from bile pigments.
Patients also can present with elevated serum cholesterol, and often complain of severe itching or "pruritus".
No one test can differentiate between various classifications of jaundice. A combinations of liver function tests is essential to arrive at a diagnosis.
|Pre-hepatic Jaundice||Hepatic Jaundice||Post-hepatic Jaundice|
|Total bilirubin||Normal / Increased||Increased||Increased|
|Conjugated bilirubin||Normal||Normal / Decreased||Increased|
|Unconjugated bilirubin||Increased||Normal / Increased||Normal|
|Urobilinogen||Increased||Normal / Increased||Decreased / Negative|
|Alkaline phosphatase levels||normal||normal||increased|
|Alanine transferase and Aspartate transferase levels||normal||increased||normal|
- Main article: Neonatal jaundice
Neonatal jaundice is usually harmless: this condition is often seen in infants around the second day after birth, lasting until day 8 in normal births, or to around day 14 in premature births. Serum bilirubin normally drops to a low level without any intervention required: the jaundice is presumably a consequence of metabolic and physiological adjustments after birth. In extreme cases, a brain-damaging condition known as kernicterus can occur; there are concerns that this condition has been rising in recent years due to inadequate detection and treatment of neonatal hyperbilirubinemia. Neonatal jaundice is a risk factor for hearing loss.
It was once believed persons suffering from the medical condition jaundice saw everything as yellow. By extension, the jaundiced eye came to mean a prejudiced view, usually rather negative or critical. Alexander Pope, in 'An Essay on Criticism' (1711), wrote: "All seems infected that the infected spy, As all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye." Similarly in the mid 19th century the English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote in the poem 'Locksley Hall': "So I triumphe'd ere my passion sweeping thro' me left me dry, left me with the palsied heart, and left me with a jaundiced eye."
- Children's Liver Disease Foundation: information on jaundice in infants
- National Niemann Pick Disease Foundation: jaundice at birth combined with enlarged spleen and/or enlarged liver can indicate Niemann Pick disease
- Neonatal jaundice
- Guyton, Arthur; Hall, John (September 2005). Textbook of Medical Physiology, Saunders.
- http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3225/is_1_71/ai_n8702953 accessed Nov. 22, 2008
- Pashankar, D, Schreiber, RA (July 2001). Jaundice in older children and adolescents. Pediatrics in Review 22 (7): 219–226.
- O'Keefe, Lori (2001-05-05). Increased vigilance needed to prevent kernicterus in newborns. American Academy of Pediatrics 18 (5): 231.
- From "The Dictionary of Cliches" by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985).
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