Why Are My Eyes Yellow

There’s no research supporting the idea that putting too much of any substance into your body can cause it to back up into your bloodstream and make your eyes yellow.

Why Are My Eyes Yellow?

Yellowing of the eyes typically happens if you have jaundice.

Jaundice occurs when the oxygen-carrying components in the blood, called hemoglobin, break down into bilirubin and your body doesn’t clear the bilirubin.

Bilirubin is supposed to move from the liver to the bile ducts. Then, your body releases it in your poop. If any of this doesn’t happen, bilirubin builds up in your skin and makes it look yellow. This can also happen to your eyes.

The white portion of your eye is called the sclera. Healthy eye tissue looks white. Yellowing of the sclera might mean there’s an underlying health condition.

Yellowing of the eyes can happen if one or more of these organs aren’t working properly:

Conditions that affect the liver

The liver performs an important role in your body, including breaking down red blood cells. Conditions that affect the liver’s function can cause yellowing of the eyes.

Liver scarring (cirrhosis) is a common cause of liver dysfunction. Cirrhosis can be caused by:

  • alcohol use disorder
  • liver cancer
  • liver infection
  • nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
  • hepatitis B and C

Hepatitis A, D, and E can also cause jaundice, but they’re less common than hepatitis B and C.

Genetic conditions

Some genetic conditions are thought to cause cirrhosis, including:

  • Hemochromatosis. This condition causes too much iron to collect in your liver. Primary hemochromatosis is inherited.
  • Wilson’s disease. This rare disease causes too much copper to build up in your liver.
  • Porphyrias. These are a group of rare blood disorders that cause too much porphyrins, compounds crucial to making red blood cells, to build up in the body.

You may experience one or more of the following symptoms along with yellow eyes if you have one of these conditions:

Conditions that affect the gallbladder

The liver produces bile that then collects in the gallbladder.

The gallbladder releases bile that helps your body digest fats. It also connects back to your liver through tubes called bile ducts.

Jaundice can happen if bile ducts are blocked because of:

  • gallstones
  • cysts
  • tumors
  • gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis)

Gallbladder blockages can also cause:

Conditions that affect the pancreas

The pancreas is an organ that produces hormones and enzymes. The duct that comes from your pancreas and the gallbladder’s bile duct join to drain into your small intestine.

If the pancreatic duct becomes inflamed, infected, or obstructed, bile may not drain properly. This can cause jaundice. Pancreatic cancer can also cause this condition.

Buildup of bilirubin can also make your pee darker, your poop paler, and cause your skin to get itchy.

However, jaundice from conditions that affect the pancreas aren’t very common.

Blood disorders

Red blood cells not breaking down or bilirubin not being excreted properly can also make your eyes yellow. This is why conditions that affect how long your red blood cells live, or how they’re produced, can cause yellowing of the eyes.

  • drug-induced immune hemolytic anemia
  • an incompatibility reaction from a blood transfusion, which is considered a medical emergency
  • sickle cell anemia

Treatment for jaundice and other causes of yellowing eyes depends on the underlying cause.

Pre-hepatic jaundice

This type of jaundice happens when your body breaks down too many red blood cells and your liver can’t keep up with the sheer volume of bilirubin being produced, so it builds up in your body instead.

This happens before any damage is done to your liver. It’s caused by conditions like malaria and sickle cell anemia.

Your doctor will likely prescribe you medications to treat the cause or reduce symptoms. They may recommend a blood transfusion, rehydration through an intravenous (IV) line, or medications like hydroxyurea (Droxia, Hydrea) if it’s caused by sickle cell anemia.

Intra-hepatic jaundice

This type of jaundice happens if your liver has already been damaged a bit. It’s commonly caused by infections, such as viral hepatitis, or by liver scarring.

Antiviral medications can help treat viral infections in your liver, removing the source of your jaundice and protecting you from other complications of a liver infection.

Liver scarring caused by drinking alcohol or exposure to chemicals or toxins that affect your liver can be treated by removing the source — reduce or stop drinking altogether, or find out what’s causing liver damage and remove yourself from that environment.

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You may need a liver transplant if your liver’s been severely damaged. If there isn’t enough healthy liver tissue left, you may end up with liver failure if the liver isn’t replaced.

Post-hepatic jaundice

This type of jaundice happens if a bile duct is blocked, meaning that bilirubin and other waste substances can’t get out of the liver.

Surgery is the most common treatment for post-hepatic jaundice. This surgery is done by taking out the gallbladder, some of the bile duct, and a section of the pancreas.

Gallbladder conditions

Your doctor will likely suggest removing your gallbladder if your bile ducts are blocked, the gallbladder is inflamed, or the gallbladder is full of gallstones.

And, just in case you’re wondering, you can live without your gallbladder.

Seek medical attention as soon as possible if you notice any of the following symptoms along with yellowing of your eyes, as they may be signs of a serious condition:

  • losing your appetite
  • nose bleeding
  • itchy skin
  • feeling weak or exhausted
  • losing weight for no apparent reason
  • leg or abdominal swelling
  • dark urine
  • pale stools
  • abnormal joint or muscle pain
  • changes or darkening of skin color
  • fever
  • feeling sick
  • throwing up

There are some misconceptions about what causes yellowing of the eyes. For example, the idea that eating certain foods can cause yellow eyes or that someone with yellow eyes has an alcohol use disorder.

Eating too many foods that are high in vitamin A (beta carotene) can cause yellowing of the skin. Some of these foods include carrots, squash, and melons — they can affect the skin, but they shouldn’t cause yellowing of the eyes.

Yellow eyes can only result from a buildup of bilirubin in your bloodstream because there’s too much of it or because your liver can’t process it.

There’s no research supporting the idea that putting too much of any substance into your body can cause it to back up into your bloodstream and make your eyes yellow.

It’s also a misconception that yellow eyes mean that someone overuses alcohol or is somehow unwell. Jaundice from alcoholic liver damage is only one of several possible causes.

Jaundice and other causes can indeed be signs of a health condition affecting your liver. But in some cases, it may be a temporary bilirubin buildup or a nutrient deficiency, as lacking vitamins like B-12 has been linked to yellowing of the eyes because of changes in red blood cell production.

Once the underlying issue is treated, yellow eyes often go away.

Yellow eyes are most likely a result of jaundice. Jaundice isn’t always a big deal, but some of its causes can be disruptive to your life or cause long-term complications.

See your doctor if you notice significant yellowing in your eyes, especially along with other symptoms like abdominal pain, fatigue, and fever, so that you can get the treatment you need.

Last medically reviewed on November 5, 2019

How we reviewed this article:

Healthline has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.

  • Green R, et al. (2017). Megaloblastic anemias: Nutritional and other causes. DOI:
    10.1016/j.mcna.2016.09.013
  • Jaundice. (2018).
    nhs.uk/conditions/jaundice/
  • Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. (2019).
    cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-and-symptoms.html
  • Tests for gallbladder cancer. (2018).
    cancer.org/cancer/gallbladder-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/diagnosis.html

Yellow eyes: Causes and treatment

woman with yellow eyes

Yellow eyes are usually a sign that you have jaundice. Yellow eyes can be caused by the excess use of certain medications or a number of medical conditions, some serious. Treatment depends on the underlying cause of eye discoloration.

Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes caused by high levels of a pigment called bilirubin. Even though it makes the eyes look yellow, it doesn’t affect vision.

Jaundice is not a disease. Instead, it’s a sign that the liver, gallbladder and bile ducts aren’t functioning like they should.

Conjunctival icterus is the medical term for yellow eyes. The term scleral icterus may also be used.

What causes yellow eyes

The whites of your eyes should always look white. If this part of your eye (sclera) is anything other than white, an eye doctor can help you figure out what’s causing the color change.

Yellow eyes can be caused by the following conditions:

  • Specific medications, including excess acetaminophen and prescription drugs like penicillin, oral contraceptives, chlorpromazine and anabolic steroids.
  • Acute pancreatitis, an infection of the pancreas.
  • Obstruction jaundice can occur when one or more of the ducts that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder becomes blocked by gallstones. When the bile cannot flow properly, it builds up in the blood.
  • A pinguecula is a yellowish growth that can develop over part of the sclera, often thought to be caused by too much sun exposure. A pinguecula can be surgically removed if it gets too large or bothersome.
  • Hemolytic anemia, a congenital blood disorder that occurs when the blood lacks healthy red blood cells.
  • Malaria, a mosquito-borne blood infection common in some parts of the world.
  • Certain blood disorders that affect the production and lifespan of red blood cells, such as sickle cell anemia.
  • Rare genetic disorders that affect the way the liver processes bilirubin.
  • Autoimmune diseases that attack the body’s immune system. Hepatitis A, B and C viruses can infect liver cells, causing either short- or long-term hepatitis and yellowing of the eyes.
  • Cirrhosis, a late-stage scarring of the liver that reduces the liver’s ability to filter bilirubin. Cirrhosis can be caused by many forms of liver disease, including hepatitis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and chronic alcoholism — all of which can cause yellow eyes.
  • Some cancers, including cancers of the liver, pancreas and gallbladder.
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Jaundice in babies

Jaundice is common in newborns. About 60% of all babies develop jaundice, which can include yellow eyes.

Infants born prematurely are at a higher risk because their livers aren’t mature enough to process bilirubin.

Mild cases of infantile jaundice usually clear up on their own — only around one in 20 affected infants require intervention. For moderate cases, a special light therapy is usually used to reduce bilirubin levels, often resulting in a quick recovery.

Jaundice is much less common in older children and adults. In these cases, a doctor may suspect a more concerning underlying condition that requires medical treatment.

As with newborns, the liver is the first area of focus when jaundice occurs in children and adults.

Treatment for yellow eyes

How yellow eyes are treated depends on their underlying cause.

Yellow eyes may be the most visible sign of certain conditions, but the symptoms that occur alongside eye discoloration can be just as important. These symptoms can help a doctor diagnose and treat the problem.

Accompanying symptoms might include:

  • Itchy skin
  • Fullness in the stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Pale stools
  • Dark urine
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Sudden weight loss

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

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

If the underlying cause of yellow eyes is found to be an infection like hepatitis C or malaria, a doctor may prescribe antibiotic, antifungal or antiviral medications.

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
  • Saturated fats

People with jaundice are advised to stay well-hydrated and eat more liver-friendly foods, such as:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Lean proteins
  • Nuts and legumes

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

Certain conditions, such as a blocked bile duct, may require surgery before the whites of the eyes return to their normal color.

FAQs

Q: Should I be worried about yellow eyes?

A: If you notice a rapid yellowing of your eyes, you need to see a doctor. Yellow eyes may be a sign that your liver is not working properly.

Q: Can you have yellow skin without yellow eyes?

A: Yes, it is possible to have yellow-tinged skin without having yellow eyes. One cause is if a person consumes too much beta carotene. Beta carotene is an organic compound that gives certain fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, their bright color.

Q: What vitamin turns your skin yellow?

A: The body turns beta carotene into vitamin A. Although rare, consuming too much beta carotene can cause the skin to turn a shade of yellow or orange, a condition called carotenemia. So, in theory, too much vitamin A can turn your skin yellow.

See an eye doctor if your eyes look yellow

If your eyes look yellow, don’t ignore them.

When liver disease or another medical condition is causing the yellow color, prompt diagnosis and treatment is needed to prevent serious complications, including organ damage.

See an eye doctor as soon as possible if you think you’re developing yellow-colored eyes.

If they suspect an underlying medical condition, your optometrist or ophthalmologist will refer you to the appropriate medical professional.

Adam Debrowski also contributed to this article.

Notes and References

Why are the whites of my eyes discolored? American Academy of Ophthalmology. July 2020.

Adult jaundice. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed June 2021.

Common characteristics of liver disease. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed June 2021.

What are jaundice and kernicterus? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed June 2021.

Jaundice information. Mount Sinai. Accessed October 2021.

All you need to know about beta carotene. Medical News Today. Federal Aviation Administration. December 2017.

Page published on Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Medically reviewed on Sunday, May 16, 2021

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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population [BiomedCentral.com]; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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