Why Are Your Eyes Yellow?

6 Conditions That Cause Yellow Eyes

Some people say that you may look jaundiced when your eyes appear yellow. However, that term actually refers to a build-up of bilirubin in the eyes and the rest of the body. Bilirubin is a yellow substance created when old blood cells are replaced.

Instead, the correct term for yellow eyes is icterus. Icterus refers only to yellowish eyes rather than the whole body. If just the eyes appear yellow, it could be due to a simple and harmless cause.

But sometimes yellowish eyes can be a sign of something more serious. This article looks at six reasons for why eyes may appear yellow.

conditions that cause yellow eyes

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Subconjunctival Hemorrhage

The white part of your eye, known as the sclera, is covered by a thin, clear tissue called the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva contains many tiny blood vessels that can easily burst or break.

When they break, blood leaks out and fills the space between the conjunctiva and the sclera. If the leak is small, a part of your eye may look a bit discolored, sometimes yellow or a little red. But if the leak is large enough, the entire white part of your eye may appear bright red.

A subconjunctival hemorrhage often appears as a bright red pool of blood in your eye. This usually causes no pain or vision changes, but there may be minor itching of the eye. Sometimes there is a scratchy feeling when you blink.

As that blood breaks down and is cleared from the eye, it can turn yellow.

Causes

A subconjunctival hemorrhage, or eye bleed, can be caused by the following:

  • Trauma
  • Hard coughing
  • Hard sneezing
  • Vomiting
  • Heavy lifting
  • Hard rubbing of the eye
  • Constipation
  • Various eye infections

Occasionally, an eye bleed can be a warning sign for diabetes, hypertension, bleeding or blood disorders, leukemia, or sickle cell disease. An eye specialist should examine the eye to identify a cause and rule out other possible health disorders.

Treatment

Artificial tears sometimes help with any feelings of scratchiness. Apart from that, most cases of subconjunctival hemorrhage will disappear on their own.

Any blood that you can see in your eye will slowly be reabsorbed by your body. Most hemorrhages of this type will go away by themselves in about seven days, while a larger eye bleed can take up to two to three weeks to resolve.

The redness may turn to a yellow-orange color, pink, and then white again. The color change from the blood in your eye is not permanent.

If just one eye turns yellow, it may be due to a burst blood vessel, which could signal other health problems—or not. It may be a simple eye bleed. But if both eyes are yellow, you need to seek medical attention. In all cases, the sooner a healthcare provider helps you to identify the cause, the faster you'll be treated.

Hyperbilirubinemia

Hyperbilirubinemia refers to increased levels of bilirubin. Bilirubin is produced when the liver breaks down old red blood cells.

The liver gets rid of bilirubin by including it in bile, which is released by the gallbladder into the small intestine to break down fats during digestion. Bilirubin leaves the body through the stool (feces) and gives stool its normal brown color.

However, when an abnormally high number of red blood cells is broken down, bilirubin can build up quickly in the body. Liver disease or a blockage of bile can also cause bilirubin levels to be higher.

Too much bilirubin is one cause of jaundice. Healthcare providers usually order several types of liver function tests to check for liver problems.  Treatment will depend on the cause, and once the cause is taken care of, the yellowing of the eyes and skin often disappears.

Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is an infection caused by Leptospira bacteria. People with this infection often have yellowing of the eyes. The infection is most common in warmer climates and in places with exposure to water that has been contaminated by animal urine.

Symptoms of leptospirosis include a cough, sore throat, headache, muscle and stomach pain, and swollen lymph nodes. People with the infection also develop an enlarged spleen or liver. Antibiotics are usually successful in treating the infection. 

Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a chronic disease that causes people to misuse alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol over time can damage the liver. People who abuse alcohol are at great risk of developing alcoholic liver disease.

Liver disease, including hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) and cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), can cause jaundice, leading to yellowing of the eyes. Treatment for alcohol-related liver disease includes stopping drinking alcohol.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, an organ that produces enzymes needed for digestion. This condition causes abdominal pain and over time can damage the pancreas. Pancreatitis also may lead to mild jaundice of the eyes and skin.

Treatment may mean hospitalization with specialized care.

Hemolytic Anemia

Hemolytic anemia is a blood condition that develops when the body breaks down red blood cells too quickly, leading to a lack of blood cells. This is known as anemia. The whites of the eyes may appear yellow because bilirubin levels increase when red blood cells break down too quickly.

Treatment for hemolytic anemia requires finding out why red blood cells are being destroyed.

Summary

Having your eyes turn yellow is a sign that something else is wrong—and it's a sign that's hard to miss. The yellow color may be due to a harmless broken blood vessel in the eye, or it could be due to other problems like liver disease or a bacterial infection.

Any yellowness in the eyes is a reason for medical attention. Your healthcare provider can help you determine the cause, so you can get the appropriate treatment.

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9 Sources
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