The eyes can turn yellow as a result of jaundice. Jaundice is common in newborns. In adults, it may occur due to liver disease or injury, a blockage in the bile duct, malaria, and more.

Jaundice describes a yellowish tint to the skin and the whites of the eyes. While it typically resolves on its own in newborns, jaundice in adults and children can be a sign of a serious underlying condition that requires medical treatment.

Read on to learn more about what can cause the eyes to turn yellow, treatment options, when to contact a doctor, and more.

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Jaundice can cause yellow eyes. It happens as a result of hyperbilirubinemia, or a buildup of bilirubin in the blood.

Bilirubin is a yellow waste substance found in bile, the liquid the liver makes to help break down fats.

Too much bilirubin in the bloodstream can cause leaks into surrounding tissues, such as the skin and eyes. This causes them to turn yellow.

In the eyes, it can cause the sclera to turn yellow. The sclera is the white part of the eye.

The cause of jaundice can be different in babies, children, and adults.

Learn more about what can cause high bilirubin levels.

Jaundice is very common in newborn infants because the liver is still maturing. It affects around 60% of full-term babies and 60% of premature babies in the first week of life.

Bilirubin often builds up faster than the immature liver of an infant can break it down, causing jaundice to occur frequently.

Some causes of neonatal jaundice include:

  • Physiological jaundice: Many newborns have this type of jaundice, due to the liver’s early stage of development. It usually appears in the first days of life, and resolves within around 1 week.
  • Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding or nursing can cause jaundice when an infant initially does not receive enough breast milk to flush the bilirubin out. This type of jaundice often resolves within a few days.
  • Breast milk: Occasionally, substances in breast milk cause the intestines of a newborn to retain bilirubin rather than excrete it in stools. This form of jaundice usually resolves itself by 12 weeks of age.

Some causes of newborn jaundice require treatment. These include:

  • Blood incompatibility jaundice: When a birth parent and a fetus do not have compatible blood types, the birth parent’s body may attack the red blood cells of the fetus while it is in the womb.
  • Jaundice of prematurity: Premature babies are more likely to have jaundice as their livers are more underdeveloped. Jaundice in premature babies appears within around 5–7 days, and can last around 3 weeks.
  • Infections: Jaundice that appears toward the end of the first week may be due to an infection.

Symptoms

Yellow eyes are only one symptom of newborn jaundice. It can also cause:

Most cases of newborn jaundice are not dangerous and resolve without treatment within around 1 week as the liver matures.

However, it is important for a medical professional to check any newborn with these symptoms

Yellow eyes and jaundice in children, teenagers, and adults normally indicate an underlying medical issue.

Possible causes of jaundice include:

  • Damage to the liver: Conditions that cause damage to, or inflammation in, the liver can cause jaundice. Liver problems cause a type of jaundice known as hepatocellular jaundice.
  • A blockage in the bile duct system: When a blockage occurs in the tubes that carry the bile from the liver to the gallbladder and intestines, bilirubin cannot leave the liver and builds up. This type of jaundice is called obstruction jaundice.
  • Breakdown of red blood cells: When the body breaks down red blood cells too quickly (hemolysis), an increase in bilirubin production can cause jaundice.

A number of medical conditions that require medical treatment can cause any of these types of jaundice.

Conditions that can cause yellow eyes due to jaundice include:

Other possible causes include:

  • exposure to certain toxins, such as some snake venoms
  • mushroom toxin from Amanita phalloides
  • scarring of the bile ducts after surgery
  • reduced blood flow to the liver following major surgery
  • taking acetaminophen in high doses
  • taking large amounts of iron
  • some prescription medications, such as:
    • amoxicillin/clavulanate
    • azathioprine
    • chlorpromazine
    • isoniazid
    • oral contraceptives
  • some medicinal herbs, such as:
    • germander
    • green tea extracts
    • kava
    • pyrrolizidine

A physician should look at all sudden cases of jaundice in adults and older children to rule out serious causes.

Treatments for yellow eyes will depend on the underlying cause.

Neonatal jaundice

While most infants have mild-to-moderate jaundice, more severe cases occur. Cases of mild jaundice might resolve without treatment, while phototherapy may be an option for treating moderate jaundice.

Doctors can treat extremely severe cases using a blood transfusion.

Learn more about infant jaundice.

Other causes

If yellow eyes are a symptom of jaundice due to an underlying condition, doctors will usually target treatment at the cause. They may also prescribe cholestyramine, a bile acid sequestrant, if a person experiences itchiness.

A person’s doctor can advise on what treatments they recommend based on their own circumstances.

Learn more about treatments for yellow eyes.

Eating certain foods, such as yellow and orange vegetables, can cause the skin to turn yellow-orange. This is known as carotenemia. However, this is not the case for yellow eyes.

Yellow eyes do not always occur due to the consumption of alcohol. There are numerous possible causes of jaundice. Alcohol-related liver disease is just one possible cause of yellow eyes due to jaundice.

It is important to note that jaundice is not contagious. However, it may occur due to an infection, such as hepatitis A.

It is essential to contact a doctor as soon as a person notices yellow eyes. Healthcare professionals should assess newborns for signs of jaundice. In some cases, yellow eyes and other symptoms of jaundice can appear days after the birth.

Children or adults with yellow eyes should seek immediate medical advice. It may be due to a serious underlying condition, so it is essential to receive an accurate diagnosis as early as possible.

Here are some frequently asked questions about yellow eyes.

Does having yellow eyes indicate a liver problem?

Having yellow eyes usually indicates jaundice. Jaundice happens when bilirubin, which is made by the liver, builds up in the blood. Damage to the liver may cause jaundice, but there are other possible causes, such as a blockage in the bile duct system or red blood cells breaking down too quickly.

Does anemia cause yellow eyes?

Autoimmune hemolytic anemia may cause jaundice, which can result in yellow eyes. Autoimmune hemolytic anemia refers to conditions where there is a malfunction of the immune system that causes autoantibodies to attack red blood cells.

Sickle cell anemia can also cause jaundice. Sickle cell anemia is a type of sickle cell disease.

Yellow eyes most commonly occur due to jaundice. This is common in newborns, and in most cases it resolves itself within a week or two after the birth.

In adults and children, yellow eyes usually indicate an underlying condition that causes jaundice. Possible causes include damage to the liver, a blockage in the bile duct system, and hemolysis.

It is essential to seek medical advice as soon as a person notices yellow eyes. As some causes can be serious, it is important to receive an accurate diagnosis as early as possible.