Difference Between Physiological and Pathological Jaundice

The Distinction Between Physiological And Pathological Jaundice: Elevated blood bilirubin levels cause jaundice, a common medical illness characterised by yellowing of the skin and eyes. It is essential for the general public as well as medical experts to comprehend the subtle differences between pathological and healthy jaundice. Although yellow discolouration is a common symptom of both kinds, there are notable differences in their underlying causes, onset, and implications.

Physiological Jaundice:

  • Physiological jaundice is a common occurrence in infants and is regarded as a typical aspect of their transition from uterus to extrauterine life.
  • benign Bilirubin Buildup: This yellow pigment is created when red blood cells break down and is caused by a brief rise in bilirubin levels.
  • Usually Mild and Self-Limiting: Physiological jaundice usually shows up after the first twenty-four hours of life, peaks in the third or fourth day, and then progressively goes away on its own without medical assistance.

Pathological Jaundice:

  • Underlying Health Conditions: In contrast to physiological jaundice, pathological jaundice is linked to underlying medical disorders that interfere with the body's natural ability to handle bilirubin.
  • Early Onset: Within the first 24 hours of birth, pathological jaundice may develop, necessitating immediate medical treatment.
  • Severe and Persistent: It usually lasts longer than a week and may be more severe, requiring medical examinations to determine and treat the underlying reason.
  • Risk of consequences: Pathological jaundice has a higher risk of consequences and necessitates careful assessment and treatment since it frequently signals an underlying medical issue.
  • Although yellow colouring is a frequent indication of both pathological and physiological jaundice, there are differences in the degree, aetiology, and timing of each condition. 

Recognizing these differences is pivotal for timely and appropriate medical management.

Difference Between Physiological and Pathological Jaundice

Here's a table summarizing the key differences between physiological and pathological jaundice:


Physiological Jaundice

Pathological Jaundice


Typically after 24 hours of birth

Can occur within the first 24 hours


Temporary bilirubin increase due to normal breakdown of red blood cells

Underlying health issues affecting bilirubin processing, such as liver or blood disorders


Generally mild and self-limiting

Can range from moderate to severe, often requiring medical intervention

Peak Timing

Peaks around the third to fourth day

May persist beyond the first week

Bilirubin Levels

Moderately elevated, within the physiological range

Markedly elevated, often exceeding normal limits


Typically the only symptom is jaundice

Jaundice accompanied by additional symptoms, such as pale stools, dark urine, and failure to thrive

Underlying Conditions

No underlying health issues, resolves as the baby's liver matures

Reflects an underlying medical condition requiring diagnosis and treatment


Resolves without specific treatment within the first two weeks

May require prolonged medical management, depending on the underlying cause

Treatment Approach

Phototherapy may be used in severe cases

Addresses the root cause, may include phototherapy, exchange transfusions, or medication

Risk of Complications

Generally low risk of complications

Higher risk of complications due to associated health issues

Long-term Effects

No long-term effects expected

Long-term effects depend on the underlying condition and its management

What is Physiological Jaundice 

Newborns with physiological jaundice often have yellowing of the skin and eyes, which is a benign disease. It happens when red blood cells naturally break down and bilirubin, a yellow pigment, is released. This particular kind of jaundice is thought to be a normal aspect of the newborn's adjustment to life outside the womb.

Key characteristics of physiological jaundice include:

  • Timing: It usually starts to show up after the first twenty-four hours of life and peaks on the third or fourth day. During this period, the baby's liver adjusts to manage bilirubin and the breakdown of foetal red blood cells increases.
  • Cause: As the baby's liver develops and becomes more adept at processing bilirubin, there is a brief and typical rise in bilirubin levels, which is the main cause of physiological jaundice.
  • Severity: Physiological jaundice is often self-limiting and moderate. Usually, the yellow discolouration goes away on its own without the need for significant medical care.
  • Levels of Bilirubin: The bilirubin linked to physiological jaundice often fall within the physiological range and do not rise to a point where the health of the unborn child is seriously jeopardised.

It's important for healthcare professionals to monitor jaundice in newborns, even if it is physiological, to ensure that it follows the expected course and does not indicate an underlying medical issue. If the jaundice persists or becomes severe, further evaluation and medical intervention may be necessary.

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What is the Symptoms of Physiological Jaundice

Physiological jaundice, often seen in newborns, typically presents with mild and temporary symptoms related to the yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes. The symptoms of physiological jaundice include:

  • Yellowing of the Skin: The most noticeable symptom is the yellowing of the baby's skin, which typically begins on the face and then progresses to other parts of the body.
  • Yellowing of the Eyes: The whites of the eyes, known as the sclera, may also take on a yellowish tint.
  • Yellowing of Mucous Membranes: In some cases, mucous membranes, such as the inside of the mouth, may also show a yellowish color.
  • Pale Stools: The baby's stools may appear paler than usual due to the elevated bilirubin levels.
  • Dark Urine: While physiological jaundice typically does not cause dark urine, it's essential to monitor for any changes in urine color, as dark urine can be associated with other forms of jaundice.
  • Mild Discomfort: Infants with physiological jaundice generally do not experience particular discomfort or other symptoms. They tend to get fed and sleep normally.

It's crucial to note that physiological jaundice is a common and often benign occurrence in newborns, usually resolving without specific treatment as the baby's liver matures and becomes more efficient at processing bilirubin.

What is the Cause of Physiological Jaundice

Physiological jaundice in newborns is primarily caused by the normal processes of the infant's body adapting to life outside the womb. The key factors contributing to physiological jaundice include:

  • Normal Breakdown of Red Blood Cells (RBCs): In the first few days of life, the newborn's body undergoes a natural process of breaking down and recycling fetal red blood cells. This process releases bilirubin, a yellow pigment, into the bloodstream.
  • Immature Liver Function: A newborn's liver is still developing and might not be fully efficient in processing and excreting bilirubin. The immature liver may take some time to adjust to the increased bilirubin load.
  • Breastfeeding Patterns: Physiological jaundice can be influenced by breastfeeding patterns. In some cases, there may be a delay in the establishment of breastfeeding, leading to fewer bowel movements and slower elimination of bilirubin.
  • Delayed Passage of Meconium: Meconium is the first stool passed by a newborn. A delay in the passage of meconium can contribute to the buildup of bilirubin, leading to jaundice.
  • Increased Bilirubin Production: The breakdown of fetal red blood cells and the increased bilirubin load contribute to elevated bilirubin levels in the bloodstream, leading to the characteristic yellow discoloration associated with jaundice.

What is Pathological Jaundice

A condition known as pathological jaundice is characterised by increased blood levels of bilirubin, which causes the skin and eyes to become yellow. Pathological jaundice is linked to underlying medical disorders that interfere with the regular processes of bilirubin synthesis, processing, or removal. This is in contrast to physiological jaundice, which is a common and transient occurrence in many babies. This type of jaundice frequently necessitates quick medical care.

Key characteristics of pathological jaundice include:

  • Early Onset: Pathological jaundice may manifest within the first 24 hours of life, in contrast to physiological jaundice, which typically appears after the first day.
  • Prolonged or Severe Jaundice: While physiological jaundice is generally mild and self-limiting, pathological jaundice tends to be more persistent and may become severe if left untreated.
  • Underlying Medical Conditions: Pathological jaundice is often indicative of an underlying health issue that interferes with the normal processes of bilirubin metabolism. This can include conditions affecting the liver, bile ducts, or red blood cells.
  • Associated Symptoms: Infants with pathological jaundice may exhibit additional symptoms beyond yellowing of the skin and eyes. These symptoms can include pale stools, dark urine, lethargy, poor feeding, and failure to thrive.
  • Risk of Complications: Due to the underlying health conditions associated with pathological jaundice, there is an increased risk of complications. These may include neurological damage (kernicterus) in severe cases, which can lead to long-term developmental issues.

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What is the Symptoms of Pathological Jaundice

Pathological jaundice, marked by yellowing of the skin and eyes, demands attention due to underlying health issues. Here's a concise overview of its symptoms:

  • Yellowed Skin and Eyes: Prominent yellow discoloration indicates elevated bilirubin levels.
  • Dark Urine: Amber-colored urine reflects increased bilirubin excretion through the kidneys.
  • Pale Stool: Light-colored or pale stools signal reduced bilirubin excretion into the intestines.
  • Abdominal Discomfort: Pain or discomfort, especially in the liver area, may be present due to underlying liver conditions.
  • Fatigue and Weakness: Liver function compromise leads to general fatigue and weakness.
  • Loss of Appetite, Weight Loss: Reduced appetite and unintended weight loss are common, indicating potential liver disorders.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: Digestive symptoms like nausea and vomiting may accompany pathological jaundice.

What is the Cause of Pathological Jaundice

Pathological jaundice stems from various underlying conditions that disrupt normal bilirubin metabolism and liver function. Here's a concise breakdown of the primary causes:

  • Liver Infections: Viral hepatitis (such as Hepatitis B or C) and other liver infections can compromise liver function and lead to jaundice.
  • Liver Cirrhosis: Chronic liver scarring, often a result of prolonged alcohol abuse or persistent liver inflammation, impedes normal liver activity.
  • Hemolytic Anemias: Conditions causing accelerated breakdown of red blood cells, like hemolytic anemias, result in increased bilirubin production.
  • Gilbert's Syndrome: A genetic disorder affecting bilirubin processing, leading to intermittent jaundice episodes.
  • Biliary Tract Disorders: Obstruction or inflammation of the bile ducts can hinder the flow of bile, causing bilirubin buildup.
  • Alcoholic Liver Disease: Excessive alcohol consumption over time can damage the liver, contributing to jaundice.
  • Medication-Induced Liver Damage: Certain medications can adversely affect liver function and contribute to jaundice as a side effect.
  • Autoimmune Hepatitis: The immune system mistakenly attacks liver cells, causing inflammation and potential jaundice.
  • Cancer: Liver cancer or tumors impacting the bile ducts can obstruct normal bile flow.
  • Hemochromatosis: A genetic disorder causing excessive iron absorption, leading to liver damage and jaundice.

Similarity Between Physiological and Pathological Jaundice

While physiological and pathological jaundice differ significantly in their causes, onset, and implications, there are certain similarities in their outward manifestation and the basic mechanism of bilirubin buildup. Here are some commonalities between physiological and pathological jaundice:

  • Yellowing of the Skin and Eyes: Both physiological and pathological jaundice result in the characteristic yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes due to elevated levels of bilirubin in the bloodstream.
  • Bilirubin Buildup: In both cases, jaundice is typically caused by an accumulation of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during the breakdown of red blood cells. The difference lies in the underlying reasons for this buildup.
  • Association with Newborns: Both physiological and pathological jaundice can occur in newborns. Physiological jaundice is a common and temporary condition in many infants, while pathological jaundice may indicate an underlying health issue.
  • Potential for Complications: While physiological jaundice is typically benign and resolves on its own as the baby's liver matures, both types of jaundice have the potential for complications if bilirubin levels become excessively high. Severe jaundice in either case can lead to complications, such as kernicterus, a rare but serious neurological condition.
  • Monitoring and Medical Attention: In both instances, healthcare professionals closely monitor bilirubin levels to ensure they do not reach levels that could pose a risk to the baby's health. Medical attention may be required to assess the cause of jaundice and determine the appropriate course of action.

Physiological jaundice is a normal part of the newborn transition and often resolves without specific treatment, while pathological jaundice requires thorough medical evaluation and intervention to address the underlying health issues.

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What is the fundamental difference between physiological and pathological jaundice?

Physiological jaundice is a common, temporary condition in newborns due to a natural increase in bilirubin levels, while pathological jaundice is indicative of an underlying health issue affecting individuals of all ages.

How does the timing of onset help distinguish between the two types of jaundice?

Physiological jaundice typically appears a few days after birth and resolves on its own. In contrast, pathological jaundice can manifest at any age and requires investigation to identify and address the underlying cause.

Are there specific risk factors associated with each type of jaundice?

Physiological jaundice is often linked to factors like premature birth or blood type incompatibility between the mother and baby. Pathological jaundice, on the other hand, can be caused by various factors such as liver diseases, infections, or genetic disorders.

How can one differentiate between the yellowing of the skin in physiological and pathological jaundice?

The yellowing in physiological jaundice is usually mild and appears first on the face, progressing downward. In pathological jaundice, the yellowing is more pronounced and may involve the entire body, often accompanied by other symptoms.

Do both types of jaundice require medical attention?

Physiological jaundice in newborns often resolves without specific treatment, but close monitoring is important. Pathological jaundice always requires medical attention as it indicates an underlying health condition that needs diagnosis and appropriate intervention.

Can adults experience physiological jaundice?

Physiological jaundice is primarily associated with newborns. In adults, yellowing of the skin and eyes is more likely to be indicative of pathological jaundice and warrants investigation into the underlying cause.

How is jaundice diagnosed and treated?

Diagnosis involves blood tests to measure bilirubin levels and identify the cause. Treatment varies based on the underlying condition and may include addressing liver diseases, infections, or other contributing factors.

Is jaundice always a sign of a serious health issue?

While physiological jaundice in newborns is often benign, pathological jaundice requires attention as it can be a symptom of serious conditions. Early diagnosis and appropriate management are crucial for a favorable outcome.

Can lifestyle factors contribute to pathological jaundice?

Yes, factors like excessive alcohol consumption or certain medications can contribute to liver damage, leading to pathological jaundice. Lifestyle modifications may be part of the treatment plan.