What Causes Yellow Eyes?

Your eyes provide important clues about your general health. If you notice that the white part of the eye, called the sclera, have taken on a yellowish tinge, there is reason to believe something serious may be happening to your body that requires medical attention. Read on to learn more about the potential causes of yellow eyes from the knowledgeable eye doctors at Access Eye.


Jaundice is a medical condition in which elevated levels of a pigment called bilirubin in the blood cause noticeable yellowing of the skin and eyes. It is common to see jaundice in newborns whose livers are not fully developed; an estimated 60 percent of newborns develop jaundice. The condition can also affect children and adults.

Jaundice occurs when there is a buildup of bilirubin, a yellow-orange pigment produced when the liver breaks down old or abnormal red blood cells. A normal, healthy liver filters bilirubin from the blood, creating bile that travels through the bile ducts to the gallbladder. Once it reaches the gallbladder, the bilirubin is stored and then eliminated from the body through waste processes.

If the liver, gallbladder or bile ducts do not function as they should, bilirubin can build up in the blood, giving the skin and the whites of the eyes a yellowish tint.

Other Medical Conditions

Jaundice is not the only explanation for yellow eyes. Other medical conditions may be to blame, including the following:

  • Autoimmune diseases that cause infection or inflammation of the liver
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Pancreatitis (infection of the pancreas)
  • Cancer of the liver, pancreas or gallbladder
  • Malaria
  • Blood disorders affecting red blood cells (e.g., sickle cell anemia)
  • Genetic disorders that affect the way the liver processes bilirubin


Certain medications are also linked to yellow eyes. Examples include penicillin, oral contraceptives, chlorpromazine and anabolic steroids. Excessive use of over-the-counter acetaminophen can also cause yellowing of the eyes.

Yellow Eyes Versus Pinguecula

Sometimes yellow eyes are mistaken for pinguecula, a benign yellowish growth that develops on the sclera. Pinguecula is believed to be caused by excessive UV exposure.

Can Yellow Eyes Be Treated?

Identifying the underlying cause of yellow eyes is the first step toward addressing it. Once the underlying cause is treated, yellow eyes should improve. If you notice yellowing of your eyes or the eyes of a loved one, seek medical attention promptly. The earlier you can identify the underlying cause, the better.