Jaundice happens when your bile duct is blocked. This may be caused by cancer. You may need treatment for the blockage or the jaundice.

What is jaundice?

Jaundice happens when your bile duct is blocked. The bile duct is a tube that drains a fluid called bile out of the liver and into the small bowel. If it is blocked, bile builds up in the liver and flows back into the blood.

Liver and surrounding organs

Symptoms of jaundice

If you have jaundice, you may have some of these symptoms:

  • yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
  • itchy skin
  • dark yellow pee (urine)
  • pale and smelly poo (stools) that is difficult to flush away.

What causes jaundice?

Several conditions can cause a blocked bile duct, including cancer. Cancers that can cause a blocked bile duct include:

Treatment of jaundice

If you have jaundice because cancer has blocked your bile duct, you may have treatment to:

  • unblock the bile duct
  • bypass the blockage
  • improve your symptoms.

Bile duct stents

Usually the stent is put in using an ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) procedure. This uses x-rays and a long, thin, flexible tube with a light and camera at the end called an endoscope. Sometimes this is not possible, and the stent is put in using a needle through the skin and liver. This is called a PTC (percutaneous transhepatic cholangiogram).

Your doctor may put a drainage tube (catheter) in the bile duct first during the PTC. One end of the tube is in the bile duct. The other end stays outside the body, connected to a bag that collects the bile. This can help the doctor insert the stent. They usually leave the tube in for a few days. Once they remove it, the area heals in 2 to 3 days.


Bypass surgery

If a stent is unsuccessful, or not possible, you might be able to have surgery to bypass the blockage. The surgeon will make a cut in the bile duct (or sometimes the gallbladder) just above the blockage. They will then reconnect the cut to the small bowel. This bypasses the blocked part of the bile duct. The bile can then flow from the liver into the bowel. This can reduce the symptoms of jaundice. In some hospitals, the surgeon may do this procedure using keyhole surgery (a laparoscopy).

Treatments for itchy skin

If you have jaundice, you may have itchy skin. This is because bile salts are deposited in your skin. Having a shower may help as it can wash the bile salts off. Try to avoid soaps that dry your skin. They can increase itching. 

You may find moisturising lotions helpful. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to help reduce itching. Treating the cause of the jaundice will also help. 

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 31 December 2019
Next review: 31 December 2022

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

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