What are the causes of yellowing eye balls?

Updated April 17, 2017

The yellowing of the eye balls refers to a sudden yellow tinge occurring in the whites of the eyes. This may be an indication of various health problems including jaundice, certain types of hepatitis, various liver diseases, and certain types of cancer. If you notice a yellowing of the eyes, seek advice from your doctor.


Excess bilirubin in the blood stream will cause jaundice, or a yellow pigmentation of the skin, mucous membranes, or the eye balls. Bilirubin is caused by a build-up of old red blood cells that accumulate in the liver and are not broken down properly. Enough of these old red blood cells will cause jaundice to visibly develop. Common causes of jaundice in children include various kinds of hepatitis, breastfeeding or breast milk jaundice, malaria, new born jaundice, biliary atresia (blockage of bile ducts), or bilirubin disorders. Common causes in adults include liver disease, various types of hepatitis, blocked bile ducts, pancreatic cancer, bilirubin disorders, anaemia, drug-induced cholestasis, and malaria.


Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, sometimes caused by viral infections, bacteria or parasites, liver damage, certain medication overdoses (such as acetaminophen), or immune cells attacking the liver. Symptoms include yellowing of the eye balls, vomiting, nausea, muscle pain, and weakness of the body. Although certain cases may be resolved quickly, hepatitis can also develop into serious life-threatening illnesses. Treatment should be sought immediately.

Liver Disease

Certain types of liver disease may yield a yellowing of the eye balls. Cirrhosis is a result of chronic liver disease, leaving scars on the organ. Common causes are Hepatitis B or C infection, metabolic disorders, or nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, bleeding of the nose or gums, and weight loss. Alcoholic liver disease damages the liver due to long-term alcohol abuse, and may cause a yellowing of the eye balls to occur, as well as abdominal pain, dry mouth, excessive thirst, fever, nausea, and fatigue.


Pancreatic cancer affects the pancreas organ, which helps the body absorb fatty foods and create insulin and glucagon. While the cause is unknown, it is more common in smokers and overweight individuals. Symptoms include upper abdominal pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, yellowing of the skin or eye balls, fatigue, weakness, nausea and vomiting. Liver cancer is classified in two ways: primary (cancer starts in the liver) and metastatic (cancer has spread to the liver). There are certain risk factors often leading to cancer, including exposure to hepatitis viruses, cirrhosis, exposure to environmental cancer-causing substances, and certain hereditary diseases. Liver cancer is also more common in men over the age of 60. Symptoms are often vague, but include fever, abdominal pain, appetite loss, and a yellowing of the skin or eye balls.

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About the Author

Laura Gianino works at a publishing company in New York City. Her writing has appeared on eHow, LIVESTRONG, Synonym and Global Post.