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Yellow eyes: Causes and treatment

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Yellow eyes are usually an indication that you have jaundice, or they could be the result of excess use of certain medications or any one of a host of medical conditions, some very serious.

This article provides facts you need to know about yellow eyes — and what you can do about them.

Causes of yellow eyes?

The sclera (white of the eye) should always look, well, white. If this part of your eye is red or discolored, it's time to see an eye doctor to determine what's causing the change in color. 

Conjunctival icterus

One type of discoloration of the front of the eye is conjunctival icterus, which is the medical term for yellow eyes. (Sometimes, the term scleral icterus is also used to describe yellow eyes.)

Jaundice

Yellow eyes are generally a symptom of jaundice, which is a discoloration of the skin and eyes caused by elevated levels of a pigment called bilirubin. While not a disease in and of itself, jaundice is a sign that the liver, gallbladder and bile ducts are not functioning as they should.

Jaundice is relatively common in newborn infants. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 60% of all babies develop jaundice. Infants born prematurely are at particular risk because their livers aren’t mature enough to process bilirubin.

Jaundice is far less common in older children and adults. In these cases, more serious underlying conditions requiring medical treatment are usually suspected. As with newborns, the liver is the first focus when jaundice occurs in children and adults.

Mild cases of infantile jaundice generally clear up on their own — only about one in 20 affected infants require intervention. The standard treatment for moderate jaundice is light therapy (phototherapy) to reduce bilirubin levels, and recovery is usually quick.

Note: While jaundice changes the color of the eyes, it does not impact vision.

Conditions associated with yellow eyes

The most common medical conditions that can cause yellow eyes include:

  • Acute pancreatitis, or infection of the pancreas

  • Some cancers, including cancer of the liver, pancreas and gallbladder

  • Hemolytic anemia, a congenital blood disorder that occurs when the blood lacks healthy red blood cells

  • Malaria, a mosquito-borne blood infection

  • Certain blood disorders that affect the production and lifespan of red blood cells, including sickle cell anemia

  • Rare genetic disorders that affect the way the liver processes bilirubin

Other diseases and medications that may cause yellow eyes:

  • Autoimmune diseases that attack the body’s immune system. Hepatitis A, B and C viruses can infect liver cells, causing either acute (short-lived) or chronic (long-term) hepatitis and yellow eyes.

  • Obstruction jaundice can occur when one or more of the ducts that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder for storage become blocked by gallstones. When the bile cannot flow properly, it builds up in the blood. 

  • Cirrhosis, a late stage of scarring of the liver, reduces the liver's ability to filter bilirubin. Cirrhosis is caused by many forms of liver disease, including hepatitis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and chronic alcoholism — all of which can cause yellow eyes.

  • Specific medications — including over-the-counter acetaminophen (when taken in excess) and prescription drugs like penicillin, oral contraceptives, chlorpromazine and anabolic steroids — can also cause yellow eyes.

Pinguecula: Not yellow eyes, but …

Another condition sometimes associated with yellow eyes is pinguecula (plural: pingueculae).

A pinguecula is a yellowish growth that can develop atop a portion of the sclera, giving this part of the eye a yellow appearance.

The entire eye doesn’t turn yellow, only the part covered by the pinguecula.

Pingueculae are thought to be caused by too much exposure to UV rays from the sun. If a pinguecula becomes large and bothersome, the yellowish growth can be surgically removed.

SEE RELATED: Pinguecula (yellow bump on eye): Definition, causes and removal

Treatment of yellow eyes

Treatment of yellow eyes focuses on treating the underlying medical condition.

While yellow eyes may be the most visible sign of certain conditions, other symptoms that accompany discoloration of the eyes are also important to determining the nature of the health problem.

Accompanying symptoms might include itchy skin, fullness in the stomach, fatigue, fever, pale stools, dark urine, loss of appetite, nausea and sudden weight loss.

The best treatment of yellow eyes is determined by a number of tests, including one that measures the amount of bilirubin in the blood, a complete blood count and other liver tests.

The test results, along with a review of symptoms, medical history, a physical exam and possibly imaging tests, will help determine the proper diagnosis.

If the underlying cause of yellow eyes is found to be an infection like hepatitis C or malaria, antibiotics, anti-fungal or anti-viral medications may be prescribed.

If alcohol or drug use are part of the diagnosis, giving up those substances will start the healing process.

Diet can also play an important role. The liver processes and metabolizes most digested nutrients, and it works harder when foods are difficult to digest. This includes large amounts of refined sugars, salt and saturated fats.

People with jaundice are advised to stay well-hydrated and to eat more liver-friendly foods — fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts and legumes.

As the liver begins to heal with treatment, the jaundice and yellow eyes will subside.

In some cases, surgery may be necessary to correct a contributing factor like a blocked bile duct.

Yellow eyes? See an eye doctor

If you suspect you are developing yellow eyes, see an eye doctor immediately.

After thoroughly examining your eyes, your optometrist or ophthalmologist might refer you to an internist or other physician if an underlying medical condition is suspected.

Yellow eyes should not be ignored. If liver disease or another medical condition is the underlying cause, prompt diagnosis and treatment is needed to prevent serious complications, including organ damage.

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