High Bilirubin Levels in Babies and Adults

Jaundice is a symptom of high bilirubin levels (hyperbilirubinemia)

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High bilirubin levels, or hyperbilirubinemia, is an excess accumulation of bilirubin, a brownish-yellow substance that is normally formed when red blood cells are broken down as part of their usual life cycle.

Having high bilirubin levels can indicate an underlying condition in adults. Hyperbilirubinemia in newborns can occur because they might not be able to clear bilirubin well in the first few days of life.

Bilirubin is chemically changed by the liver into a form that can be safely excreted in stool and urine.

Close up of an eye with jaundice
Oktay Ortakcioglu/E+ / Getty Images

Hyperbilirubinemia Symptoms

With hyperbilirubinemia, the excessive buildup of bilirubin can cause jaundice. This condition can lead to symptoms like:

Difference Between Jaundice and Hyperbilirubinemia

Jaundice is a symptom of hyperbilirubinemia and high bilirubin levels may be a sign of another underlying condition. Keep in mind that high bilirubin levels may occur without any symptoms.

The following are symptoms that can occur simultaneously with hyperbilirubinemia as a consequence of the underlying illness (like anemia or liver disease):

Having high bilirubin levels can be dangerous and can lead to complications, especially in newborns. This can result in a condition known as kernicterus in which seizures, irreversible brain damage, and death can occur.

Hyperbilirubinemia Causes

Many conditions can lead to high bilirubin levels.

Causes of unconjugated high bilirubin levels, or bilirubin that is formed by the breakdown of red blood cells and can't be excreted in urine, include:

  • anemiaHemolytic: When red blood cells are rapidly destroyed, often as a result of cancer (such as leukemia or lymphoma), autoimmune diseases (like lupus), or medications (such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, interferon, and penicillin), it can cause high bilirubin levels.
  • A lack of digestive bacteria in newborns: This can cause jaundice in newborns due to impaired breakdown of bilirubin.
  • Gilbert syndrome: This is a genetic disorder that causes the liver to process bilirubin slowly.
  • Liver disease: This can occur if the liver is not functioning as it should.

Causes of conjugated hyperbilirubinemia, or bilirubin that has been altered by the liver and is more readily passed in urine and bile, include:

  • Liver disease: This can occur when blood flow through the liver is impaired.
  • Bile duct obstruction: Bilirubin cannot be delivered to the small intestine in bile, often as a result of cirrhosis, gallstones, pancreatitis, or tumors.

Red blood cells last about 120 days in the bloodstream. The body normally produces bilirubin as a by-product of the breakdown of red blood cells when they're old or have become damaged, so the bloodstream always has some bilirubin in it.

What Medications Cause High Bilirubin?

Some drugs can induce hyperbilirubinemia by impairing liver function, often due to underlying liver dysfunction or as a result of prolonged use or overuse.

These include:

  • Certain antibiotics (like amoxicillin and ciprofloxacin)
  • Anticonvulsives (like valproic acid)
  • Antifungals (like fluconazole)
  • Oral contraceptives
  • Statin drugs
  • Over-the-counter Tylenol (acetaminophen)

Certain herbs and herbal remedies are known to be highly toxic to the liver, including Chinese ginseng, comfrey, Jin Bu Huan, kava, kombucha tea, and sassafras.

Diagnosis

Hyperbilirubinemia can be diagnosed with a blood test. The test measures the level of total bilirubin (both conjugated and unconjugated) and direct (conjugated) bilirubin levels in the blood.

The indirect (unconjugated) bilirubin levels can be inferred from the total and direct bilirubin values. Although labs may use different reference ranges, there are generally accepted normal levels.

Normal Bilirubin Levels

Generally, for older children and adults, the following ranges are considered normal:

  • Total bilirubin: 0.3 to 1 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
  • Direct (conjugated) bilirubin: 0.1 to 0.3 mg/dL

In newborns, a normal value would be an indirect (unconjugated) bilirubin of below 8.7 mg/dL within the first 48 hours of birth.

Bilirubin is often included as part of a panel of tests that evaluate liver function and enzymes, including:

  • Alanine transaminase (ALT)
  • Aspartate aminotransferase (AST)
  • Alkaline phosphatase (ALP)
  • Gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT) bilirubin

Other Tests for High Bilirubin Levels

Additional tests may be ordered to pinpoint the underlying cause of the dysfunction, particularly in the presence of jaundice.

  • Urinalysis: This test may be ordered to evaluate the amount of bilirubin excreted in the urine.
  • Imaging tests: Ultrasound and computed tomography (CT) can help distinguish between biliary obstruction and liver disease, including cancer.
  • Liver biopsy: This would be considered if there is a concern about possible liver cancer.

Bilirubin testing would typically be repeated to monitor your response to treatment or to track the progression or resolution of disease.

Differential Diagnoses

If your bilirubin levels are high, your healthcare provider will need to identify the underlying cause. It is important to remember that hyperbilirubinemia is not a disease, but rather a characteristic of a disease.

To this end, your healthcare provider will classify the cause as follows:

  • Pre-hepatic: The underlying process is due to a problem occurring before the liver processes bilirubin, as the result of the rapid breakdown of red blood cells.
  • Hepatic: The problem involves the liver.
  • Post-hepatic: The problem is the result of something occurring after the liver processes bilirubin, as the result of bile duct obstruction.

Pre-Hepatic Causes

Pre-hepatic causes are differentiated by the lack of bilirubin in the urine since unconjugated bilirubin cannot be excreted in the urine.

In addition to a panel of red blood cell tests, your healthcare provider may request a bone marrow biopsy if cancer or other serious diseases are suspected.

Hepatic Causes

Hepatic causes are characterized by elevated liver enzymes and evidence of bilirubin in the urine. A full liver function panel and imaging tests might help with identifying the problem.

A liver biopsy may be recommended if there is a possibility of liver cancer. Genetic testing may be used to distinguish between the different types of viral hepatitis or to confirm genetic disorders like hemochromatosis or Gilbert's syndrome.

Post-Hepatic Causes

Post-hepatic causes are characterized by normal unconjugated bilirubin levels and a normal spleen. A computed tomography (CT) scan, bile tract MRI, or endoscopic ultrasonography may be done if there is concern about possible gallstones, while an ultrasound and stool tests may be done if there is concern about abnormalities of the pancreas.

There is no single test that can differentiate the underlying causes of hyperbilirubinemia. Your diagnosis is based on the results obtained from a combination of tests.

Hyperbilirubinemia Treatment

The treatment of hyperbilirubinemia in adults depends on the underlying cause and can include approaches such as stopping the use of a toxic drug, surgery, or long-term therapy.

A few treatment approaches:

  • If high bilirubin levels are caused by drugs, a change of medication can resolve the effects.
  • In cases of obstructive hyperbilirubinemia, surgery (usually laparoscopic) may be needed to remove gallstones or other sources of obstruction.
  • Severe liver or pancreatic diseases would require the care of a qualified hepatologist, with treatment options ranging from drug therapies to an organ transplant.

Sometimes, hyperbilirubinemia may not require specific treatment, like in cases of acute viral hepatitis where symptoms will typically go away on their own as the infection resolves. The same applies to Gilbert's syndrome, which is not considered harmful and does not require treatment.

If you are experiencing any symptoms of liver impairment, speak with your healthcare provider before taking any medications.

While there are no home treatments that bring bilirubin levels down, you can avoid placing additional stress on the liver by cutting out alcohol, red meat, processed foods, and refined sugar.

Treatment for Hyperbilirubinemia in Newborns

Neonatal hyperbilirubinemia may not require treatment if the jaundice is mild. For moderate to severe cases, treatment may involve:

  • Light therapy, which changes the structure of bilirubin molecules in newborns
  • Intravenous immunoglobulin, which prevents the rapid breakdown of red blood cells
  • A blood transfusion
6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Charles Daniel
 Charles Daniel, MPH, CHES is an infectious disease epidemiologist, specializing in hepatitis.