Yellow Eyes: What causes it? What are the treatments?
16 December 2021
No, we’re not talking about the Coldplay song!
Have you ever noticed that the white part of your eyes is tinged with the colour yellow? This could be down to a number of different health conditions, such as jaundice, which can turn both your skin and the whites of your eyes yellow. It can also happen due to certain medications you may be taking, or even from a high level of alcohol consumption.
Yellow eyes are usually a symptom of another underlying health condition, so treatment focuses on the underlying issue rather than the yellow discolouration itself. Once the original condition is treated, the discolouration of the eyes should clear up by itself. In this piece we will discuss why the whites of your eye may turn yellow, and what other symptoms you should look out for before seeking treatment.
What are yellow eyes?
The white part of your eye is called the sclera, and it can become discoloured and turn yellow if you have a condition called jaundice. Jaundice occurs when there is a buildup of the chemical called bilirubin in the body, leading to a yellow substance that forms when your red blood cells begin to break down. Usually, your liver can filter the bilirubin and use it to create a fluid called bile. Bile moves through bile ducts, which are small tubes, and then it reaches your digestive system and leaves your body as waste. If your body is producing too much bilirubin into your blood, or if your liver cannot get rid of the bilirubin fast enough, this is when the substance builds up and turns your eyes yellow.
What can cause yellow eyes?
Certain medical conditions, medications and other substance use can lead to yellow eyes as a symptom of another underlying health condition. Some of the causes of yellow eyes include:
- Hepatitis: Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that is caused by infectious viruses which infect liver cells, such as hepatitis A, B, and C. The infection can be long lasting and remain for at least 6 months, and all strains of the hepatitis virus can cause liver disease. As the liver can become damaged with this infection, the liver struggles to filter bilirubin properly, leading to jaundice in the eyes and skin.
- Gallstones: Gallstones are hard, pebble-shaped stones made of cholesterol that form in your gallbladder, a small organ under your liver. Gallstones are the most common cause of blocked bile ducts. If the bile ducts in your body are blocked by gallstones, then fluid cannot travel through your gallbladder effectively. This can lead to the buildup of bilirubin in your blood.
- High alcohol consumption: Drinking alcohol heavily over a long period of time, usually at least 8 - 10 years, can cause serious damage to your liver. Prolonged heavy drinking can lead to alcoholic hepatitis, which differs slightly from infectious hepatitis. This is where inflammation can destroy liver cells and cause scars to replace healthy liver tissue, making it more difficult for the liver to function. You may become more susceptible to a buildup of bilirubin due to the damage caused to your liver from alcohol, which can lead to jaundice. You can find out more about how alcohol can impact your eyes here.
- Medications: Certain medications have been known to cause jaundice as a side effect. Some of these medications include acetaminophen, penicillin, birth control medication, chlorpromazine, and steroids. If you are taking any of these medications and notice you have developed jaundice as a result, please visit your doctor to discuss your best course of action for treatment.
How are yellow eyes treated?
Yellow eyes, or jaundice, are not usually the focus of treatment – the underlying condition that is triggering it is treated. Once the condition that is creating an excess of bilirubin in the body is treated, the yellow discolouration of the sclera (the whites of your eye) should improve. While yellow eyes and skin may be the most obvious symptoms of certain health conditions, other symptoms that accompany jaundice can also indicate the nature of the problem. These symptoms can include itchy skin, fatigue, fever, sudden weight loss and nausea amongst other symptoms.
Treatment for yellow eyes begins with a number of tests, such as liver tests and blood tests to measure the amount of bilirubin in the blood. If the underlying cause of yellow eyes is an infection like hepatitis C, antibiotics may be prescribed to help clear the infection. If a high alcohol intake is the reason for yellow eyes, cutting down on drinking can help reduce the yellow discolouration in the eyes. Diet is also a key factor in treatment – staying hydrated and eating liver-friendly foods such as fruits, vegetables, proteins and nuts can help your liver heal and let the jaundice subside. However, in some cases, surgery may be necessary to treat the underlying condition if it is a blocked bile duct, which in turn will reduce the yellow discolouration.
If you have noticed a yellow discolouration in the whites of your eyes, be sure to visit your optician for a thorough examination of your eye health to determine the cause of the condition. Your optician might refer you to a doctor if an underlying condition is suspected. Yellow eyes are not something that can be ignored. If liver disease or other medical conditions are found to be the root of the problem, prompt treatment is necessary to prevent any serious health complications, including organ damage. Visit your optician as soon as possible to have your eyes examined by an eye care professional.
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