Excessive consumption of alcohol over an extended period of time can lead to jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes, due to the presence of bilirubin in the blood. This comes as a result of decreased liver function or permanent liver damage. Alcohol and jaundice are not always related, however, since jaundice can be a sign of several different health problems.
Damage to the liver as a result of alcohol consumption occurs in three stages: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis and finally cirrhosis of the liver. Fatty liver indicates that the liver is not fully metabolizing fats. It can be diagnosed by means of a liver function test, which measures the amount of non-metabolized fat in the blood. Jaundice is not generally seen at this phase of liver disease. Mild fatty liver is not dangerous, but if alcohol consumption is not decreased, it may lead to increasingly more harmful stages of liver disease.
The connection between alcohol and jaundice begins to be seen in the second stage of alcohol liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis. At this stage, the liver becomes inflamed as alcohol causes it to stop metabolizing fats, proteins or carbohydrates. This leads to a buildup of toxins, including bilirubin, in the bloodstream. Patients who experience jaundice or other symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis, including fever, abdominal swelling and loss of appetite, should see a doctor immediately. If all alcohol consumption is stopped, damage to the liver may still be reparable.
If alcohol consumption continues, cirrhosis of the liver usually results. This condition causes the liver to harden as a result of scar tissue buildup. At this stage, alcohol and jaundice usually connect, as the liver's function continues to decrease. Damage due to cirrhosis is not reversible and is often fatal, although a liver transplant may be an option for some patients.
Although excessive consumption of alcohol and jaundice are often seen together, not all alcoholics develop jaundice. Genetics, age and gender all seem to play a role in the chances of developing liver problems as a result of heavy drinking. Women are more likely than men to sustain liver damage from alcohol. Some people's livers also seem to be genetically predisposed to alcohol-related problems, although the exact causes of this are not known as of 2011.
Furthermore, jaundice may come about from a number of types health problems that are not alcohol-related. Other types of hepatitis, which may be blood borne or food borne, can cause yellowing of the skin and eyes. Infections or blockages of the gallbladder and some types of malaria may also lead to yellow skin.