What Is Obstructive Jaundice?

Medically Reviewed By Youssef (Joe) Soliman, MD
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Obstructive jaundice occurs when there is a blockage in the bowel that leads to a buildup of bilirubin in your body. This article defines obstructive jaundice. It also talks about the causes, risk factors, and treatment options associated with the condition.

What is obstructive jaundice?

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Obstructive jaundice is a condition in which there is blockage of the flow of bile out of the liver. This results in the redirection of excess bile and its byproducts into the blood, and bile excretion from the body is incomplete.

Bile contains many byproducts, one of which is bilirubin. This is a pigment derived from dead red blood cells. Bilirubin is yellow, and this is what leads to the characteristic yellow appearance of jaundice in the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes.

Symptoms of obstructive jaundice include

Any type of obstruction that blocks the flow of bile from the liver can cause obstructive jaundice. Most commonly, gallstones create this blockage.

Other possible causes of obstruction include:

  • inflammation
  • tumors
  • trauma 
  • pancreatic cancer
  • narrowing of the bile ducts
  • structural irregularities present at birth

The signs and symptoms of obstructive jaundice differ depending on the completeness of the blockage, and the disease course varies among individuals.

Some people with obstructive jaundice may have no symptoms initially. However, if the condition persists, they may experience severe abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting. A complete blockage may also occur, posing a risk of infection leading to liver and gallbladder damage. 

The goal of the clinical evaluation is to identify the root cause of jaundice. In most cases, obstructive jaundice is treatable with IV fluids, antibiotics, or, if necessary, the surgical removal of the obstruction.

Learn nine things to know about jaundice here.

What are the symptoms of obstructive jaundice?

Obstructive jaundice can cause many different types of symptoms, which vary in intensity among individuals.

Obstructive jaundice can cause any of the following symptoms:

  • abdominal pain
  • dark urine
  • fever
  • itchy skin
  • pale, foul smelling stools
  • blood in your vomit or stools
  • fatigue
  • changes to your mental alertness, such as confusion, drowsiness, and agitation
  • yellow coloration of the eyes and skin

If you experience any symptoms of obstructive jaundice, contact your doctor.

What causes obstructive jaundice?

Obstructive jaundice is caused by conditions that block the typical flow of bile from the liver into the intestines, including:

  • narrowing of the bile duct
  • pancreatic cancer
  • gallbladder cancer
  • cancer of the bile duct
  • infection or inflammation of the common bile duct
  • gallstones
  • cysts of the bile duct
  • lymph node swelling
  • pancreatic cysts
  • other pancreatic duct obstructions, such as scarring

Read some frequently asked questions about jaundice here.

How do doctors treat obstructive jaundice?

Your healthcare professional can develop a treatment plan tailored to your needs. It is important to precisely follow your treatment plan for obstructive jaundice to help minimize your symptoms and decrease the chance of your symptoms recurring over time.

To determine whether or not you have obstructive jaundice, your doctor may ask you to provide blood samples and undergo diagnostic tests.

The treatment options for obstructive jaundice depend on the exact cause of the jaundice and the severity of the condition. Doctors typically focus on treating any underlying conditions.

Treatments include:

Find out what to do for jaundice here.

Other frequently asked questions about obstructive jaundice

Here are a few more questions that people have asked about obstructive jaundice. Dr. Youssef Soliman, M.D., has provided the answers.

What are the other types of jaundice?

Jaundice is typically classified as pre-hepatic, hepatic, or post-hepatic.

Bile flow obstruction is an example of post-hepatic jaundice.

Hepatic jaundice refers to the liver being injured or unable to handle typical bile processing. Examples of that include alcoholic hepatitis and viral hepatitis.

Pre-hepatic jaundice refers to the cause of jaundice not being related to liver damage. An example of that is hemolysis, or the breakdown of red blood cells.

What are the complications of obstructive jaundice?

One implication of having obstructive jaundice is the potential for the underlying cause to be malignant, or cancerous.

Moreover, whenever there is bile flow obstruction, there is a concern that bile stasis — which refers to the slowing or complete cessation of bile flow — may give bacteria a way to grow and multiply, causing cholangitis. This is an infection within the bile ducts. Infection can spread into the blood and become life threatening.

What markers do doctors use to diagnose obstructive jaundice?

Liver enzymes from blood work can reveal specific patterns that sometimes suggest an obstructive jaundice picture in somebody who has jaundice.

What is typically valuable is an imaging study to look for evidence of obstruction of the bile duct.

Can you prevent obstructive jaundice?

Any attempts at preventing obstructive jaundice would, in theory, be directed at preventing underlying, potentially modifiable risk factors.

For gallstones, this involves following a healthy diet and lifestyle. This entails limiting refined carbohydrates, sugars, and unhealthy fats while prioritizing healthy fats and high fiber foods. For cancer, smoking is a known risk factor, so smoking cessation is recommended.

Summary

Obstructive jaundice is a condition that occurs when there is a blockage that affects the flow of bile out of the liver. This causes a buildup of bilirubin, which results in the characteristic yellowing of your skin and eyes.

There are many possible causes of obstructive jaundice, including gallstones and certain types of cancers.

If you experience any symptoms of obstructive jaundice, contact your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Youssef (Joe) Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 27
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