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Skin that takes on a yellowish tinge is a signal that something is amiss in your body. Several factors may cause your skin to adopt this pigment. If you notice changes to your skin color, including around your eyes, it needs to be addressed by a health care provider. Sometimes, yellow skin is due to a viral illness. In contrast, other times, it results from an underlying chronic condition like Graves’ disease.
Jaundice is usually the culprit behind yellow skin. People with this condition have an accumulation of bilirubin in their bodies, which is a yellowish-orange substance.
Bilirubin is a byproduct of old red blood cells that require removal from the body. Every day, a small number of red blood cells can no longer function, so the body rids itself of them. One of the roles of the liver is to break down old red blood cells to be excreted. However, suppose there is a problem with the liver or a block in the gallbladder. In that case, it can cause bilirubin to accumulate.
Symptoms of jaundice go beyond yellow skin. The white part of the eyes (the sclera) can turn yellow or even brown in severe cases. The inside of the mouth can also take on a yellow tinge, and your urine can become darker in color. In addition, people often have itching that accompanies jaundice.
Jaundice is rare in adults, but several conditions may cause it, including:
- Alcohol-related liver disease
- Blocked bile ducts
- Pancreatic or gallbladder cancer
- Autoimmune disorders
- Certain medications
Yellow skin around the eyes may indicate a severe underlying problem with the thyroid gland. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped organ located at the nape of your neck. It regulates metabolism, growth, and development. One of its leading roles is to produce thyroid hormones that tell each cell how to use its energy.
The most common thyroid condition associated with jaundice is Graves’ disease. In this autoimmune condition, the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone. Yellow skin around the eyes can signify a thyroid storm, where you have dangerously high thyroid hormone levels.
A thyroid storm is life-threatening and is characterized by:
- Severe weakness
- Irregular heartbeat
- Very low blood pressure
Suppose you have yellow skin around your eyes. In that case, you need to seek immediate medical care, especially if you have a thyroid condition.
People with hypothyroidism may also be at risk for jaundice, although it is less likely than with Graves’ disease. Hypothyroidism can increase your risk for gallbladder disease, leading to hyperbilirubinemia (another term for jaundice).
Your doctor may perform several tests to see if you have jaundice. A bilirubin test is the first step for diagnosing jaundice.
Aside from this blood test, other diagnostic tests include:
- Hepatitis panel
- Liver function tests
- Complete blood count
- Prothrombin time
- Cholesterol level
- Abdominal ultrasound and CT scan
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- Liver biopsy
The above tests can diagnose jaundice and look for causes in your abdominal organs like your liver. Your doctor will also need to check other labs to rule out the cause of jaundice, including a thyroid function test. However, thyroid function tests are not always reflective of a person’s actual thyroid status in the presence of jaundice.
The liver plays a vital role in thyroid hormone conversion. An unhealthy liver can restrict the conversion of T4 into T3. High bilirubin levels can also increase thyroid-binding globulin (TBG) concentration, which leads to a falsely elevated T4.
Suppose you have your blood tested and you do not have jaundice. In that case, yellow skin may result from a diet high in beta carotene, which comes from the orange pigment of certain foods like carrots.
Treating yellow skin around the eyes due to a thyroid condition is possible, especially if you have early intervention. Remember, jaundice is a sign of severe thyroid disease, so treating the thyroid is the biggest priority if that is the cause of jaundice.
There are three main treatment options for Graves’ disease: medication, radioiodine therapy, and thyroid surgery. The treatment of choice depends on every individual’s unique needs, such as age, pregnancy, and other medical conditions.
Jaundice related to hypothyroidism is likely rooted in an issue with the gallbladder. The first line of treatment for hypothyroidism is typically thyroid medication. Because people with hypothyroidism have low thyroid hormone levels, they need thyroid hormone replacement medication. However, suppose there is a block or restriction in the bile duct or gallbladder. In that case, that issue will need to be addressed by a specialty physician trained to treat gallbladder problems.
A note from Paloma Health
If you notice yellow skin anywhere on your body, including around your eyes, you need to seek medical care. Jaundice not common in adults unless there is an underlying medical problem causing bilirubin to accumulate in your body.