Elevated levels of bilirubin may indicate that a person is having a problem with their blood count or with their liver function. In addition, infants may also have high bilirubin levels for a few days following birth. The symptoms of elevated bilirubin are similar between adults and children, even if the causes are different.
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Considerations for Bilirubin Testing
A person who has elevated levels of bilirubin may not always have obvious symptoms, and therefore may go for some time without being aware of their levels. A doctor may request a bilirubin count if he suspects a person has liver problems, such as hepatitis or dysfunction caused by chronic alcohol use. A person with other forms of liver disease may also have occasional bilirubin tests in order to monitor the process of their disease, even if no major symptoms are present.
Significance: What is Elevated?
Bilirubin is found naturally in the body; however excessive amounts can be an indication of a serious medical condition. A total bilirubin level below 1.9 mg/dL is normal, though many symptoms, such as jaundice, do not begin to appear until it reaches about 2.5 mg/dL. Direct bilirubin, which is the name for bilirubin that has been processed through the liver, is considered elevated once it passes 0.3 mg/dL.
Effects on Adults and Children
A person with high levels of bilirubin often experiences signs of jaundice. With jaundice, a person takes on a yellowish tinge, present in both the skin and the whites of their eyes. This symptom is not unique to adults with liver problems. The American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) reports that around half of all newborns have jaundice for the first few days of their lives; however, for most it fades as bilirubin levels stabilize within a few days of birth.
Other symptoms are usually not present unless the infant has a more serious medical problem. Adults or older children with elevated bilirubin levels due to disease or liver disorder may also experience symptoms of nausea, fatigue and abdominal pain. The AACC also reports that their urine may be more concentrated, appearing darker in color.
Treating the Symptoms
For newborns, as long as the bilirubin levels are not excessive they will disappear over time. Newborn babies whose bilirubin levels are not decreasing may be placed under special phototherapy lights, which Medline Plus reports can break down excessive bilirubin in the blood. For adults, treatment is not always necessary. However, some may require the use of other medications or even surgery to address the underlying cause.
Potential for Elevated Levels
Some foods can affect bilirubin levels, as can certain medical conditions. Medline Plus reports that both lipids in the blood and blood breakdown can cause a false increase in bilirubin levels, even in the absence of any condition. In this case, the levels may be appear elevated without any other symptoms.