Jaundice, icterus, hepatitis. These three terms are interchanged by people to describe what they believe is a single common affliction, a disease that causes the skin and eyes to turn yellow. The word jaundice is actually a corrupted anglicised version of the French jaune coined in the 19th century by French physicians to describe what they thought was a single disease entity. Unaware of cause or cure, the discolouration was also called the morbus regius (the regal disease), with the belief that only the touch of a king could cure it.
Times have now changed and medicine has become evidence based. Tests can be done if a person becomes jaundiced to evaluate the when, where and why. Once the cause is removed, the disease will disappear.
The yellow colour is due to a pigment called bilirubin, normally produced in the spleen and liver when old red blood cells are broken down. The pigment is then metabolised in the liver and excreted. The level of bilirubin is usually 0.3 to 1.9mg/dl (milligrams per decilitre). The human eye can discern the yellow colour imparted by bilirubin when the level is three times or more than the normal 3mg/dl in the blood.
Infectious diseases can interfere with the ability of the liver cells to metabolise bilirubin. The most common infections are viral, commonly caused by the hepatitis group of viruses. There are several of these some are transmitted through contaminated food or water, others through unprotected sex or unsterile injections.
Jaundice owing to viral hepatitis A is the commonest form of jaundice in young people. It is usually a mild self-limited disease that recovers spontaneously in one or two months. No specific treatment is required. Hepatitis B, C or E can be more severe, relapsing, fatal or chronic.
Out of this group, hepatitis A and B are preventable. Vaccination against hepatitis B is offered in a 3-dose schedule before the age of one year (it can be given later to anyone who missed it). Hepatitis A vaccine is given after the age of two years as a 2-dose schedule. Protection is almost 100 per cent.
Other infections caused by the herpes group of viruses, leptospirosis, cytomegalovirus, malaria or even severe bacterial sepsis can also cause jaundice. These diseases are not preventable by immunisation.
Jaundice is not always due to an infection. If for any reason the number of red blood cells destroyed is greater than normal, the liver is unable to cope with the overload of pigment and the person becomes jaundiced. This occurs in some hereditary blood disorders like thalassaemia, and sickle cell disease, or a hereditary metabolic defect like G6PD deficiency.
Sometimes, the liver cells themselves are defective and unable to cope with even the normal amount of bilirubin produced in the body. This occurs in certain inherited conditions like the Dubin-Johnson or the Gilbert syndrome. Several members of a family are affected, the jaundice is mild and fluctuating and it is not fatal.
Medications can be toxic to the liver and cause jaundice. Common examples are an overdose of paracetamol or even oestrogens. Alcohol is a direct toxin, poisonous to the liver cells. Consumption on a regular basis over many years can damage the liver and can result in jaundice.
Even when the bilirubin is adequately metabolised and produced in normal quantities, jaundice can occur, if the drainage ducts are blocked by stones, strictures and primary or secondary cancer deposits.
Sixty per cent of newborns can develop a physiological or normal self-limited jaundice. There is a rapid cell turnover in newborns and they produce bilirubin at a rate of 6 to 8 mg per kg per day, (more than twice the production rate in adults). The immature liver cells are initially unable to cope but the bilirubin production and level typically decline to the adult level within 10 to 14 days. Sometimes the jaundice is due to a mother-baby blood group incompatibility. The mother forms antibodies to the infants blood. This too is self limited and treatable.
The sudden appearance of jaundice in any age group should not be self diagnosed, ignored, treated with diet restrictions or herbs without a diagnosis. After consultations with a physician, appropriate blood and urine tests and, if necessary, scans or a laproscopy should be done to arrive at a diagnosis.
Eighty per cent of the jaundice in young adults is due to hepatitis A. As this disease is self-limited, quackery and miracle cures (like the touch of the king, amulets and bracelets) abound and appear successful.
Secondary jaundice recovers once the causative factor is removed. Abstaining from alcohol and discontinuing offending drugs may reverse jaundice. If a correctable obstruction is seen on scanning or a laparoscopy, surgical treatment provides relief.
The tragedy of jaundice is that ignorance and superstition stand in the way. Some treatable and curable forms of jaundice are not diagnosed or tackled till it is too late.
Dr Gita Mathai is a paediatrician with a family practice at Vellore. Questions on health issues may be emailed to her at email@example.com