The white portion of the eye is known as the sclera. Healthy eye tissue should appear white. Certain conditions can cause the eyes and even the skin to appear yellow. Yellowing of the eyes is typically a result of dysfunction of the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas. In some instances yellow eyes can involve multiple organs.
Yellowing eyes are a symptom of a condition called jaundice. Jaundice occurs when the oxygen-carrying components (hemoglobin) in the blood are broken down into bilirubin and the bilirubin is not cleared normally. Bilirubin is supposed to move to the liver and then to the bile ducts and then released in the stool. If any portion of this process doesn’t take place, the extra bilirubin builds up in the skin and causes it to appear yellow, including the eyes. This can indicate an underlying medical problem.
What Conditions That Affect the Liver Cause Yellow Eyes?
The liver performs numerous important functions for the body, including breaking down red blood cells. Conditions that affect the liver’s functioning can lead to yellow eyes. Liver scarring (cirrhosis) commonly causes this to occur. Conditions that can cause cirrhosis include:
- alcohol abuse
- hepatitis, a viral infection of types A, B, C, D, and E
- liver cancer
- liver infection
- non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that commonly occurs in obese people
Doctors link some genetic conditions with causing cirrhosis. These conditions include hemochromatosis, which causes excess iron to collect in the liver and affect its function. Wilson’s disease causes excess copper buildup in the liver. Porphyria is another cause. This combination of genetic disorders causes the body to build up excess porphyrin. These compounds are needed to form hemoglobin.
In addition to yellow eyes, conditions that may affect the liver cause symptoms such as:
- appetite loss
- sudden weight loss
- unexplained fatigue
What Conditions That Affect the Gallbladder Cause Yellow Eyes?
The liver produces bile that is collected in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is responsible for releasing bile to help the body digest fats. The gallbladder connects back to the liver via the bile ducts. People can experience jaundice if the bile ducts become blocked. This could be due to gallstones. Gallstones are the most common cause of bile duct obstruction. Other causes include cysts, tumors, or gallbladder inflammation.
In addition to yellow eyes, gallbladder obstruction causes symptoms such as:
- bloody-appearing stool
- stomach pain
- unexplained weight loss
What Conditions That Affect the Pancreas Cause Yellow Eyes?
The pancreatic duct and the bile duct join to drain into the small intestine. If the pancreatic duct becomes diseased or obstructed, bile may not drain properly and jaundice can occur. Pancreatic cancer can cause this condition.
Excess bilirubin may also result in dark urine, light-colored stools and skin itching.
According to the American Cancer Society, pancreas-related jaundice symptoms are less common than gallstones, hepatitis, and liver disease.
What Blood Disorders Cause Yellow Eyes?
Eye yellowing may be the result of the abnormal breakdown of red blood cells and/or the impaired excretion of bilirubin. For this reason, conditions that affect red blood cell production or lifespan can cause eye yellowing. This includes:
- drug-induced immune hemolytic anemia
- incompatibility reaction from a blood transfusion, which is considered a medical emergency
- sickle cell anemia
What Misconceptions Exist About the Causes of Yellow Eyes?
Consuming excess foods high in vitamin A (beta carotene) cause skin yellowing. These foods include carrots, squash and melons. These foods can affect the skin, but they should not cause yellow eyes.