Gilbert’s syndrome is a common, harmless condition. It’s a build-up of a yellow pigment, called bilirubin, in the blood.
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Bilirubin is found naturally in the blood, and is formed when red blood cells break down. The body usually removes it, but in Gilbert’s syndrome this process doesn’t work properly.
High levels of bilirubin in the blood can cause jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes), which is the main symptom of Gilbert’s syndrome.
About one in 20 people have Gilbert’s syndrome. It’s more common in men than women, and is usually nothing to worry about.
Symptoms of Gilbert’s syndrome
Most people with Gilbert’s disease aren’t even aware of it. The bilirubin level only goes up a little, staying within normal levels most of the time.
Jaundice is the main symptom (a yellow tinge to the skin and whites of the eyes), but only occurs when the bilirubin level rises too high. Jaundice may be more obvious when you’re stressed, ill or dehydrated.
Some people with Gilbert’s syndrome also have symptoms such as tiredness, loss of appetite and nausea.
Causes of Gilbert’s syndrome
Gilbert’s syndrome is hereditary and caused by a faulty gene.
Normally, when red blood cells reach the end of their life (after about 120 days), haemoglobin, the red pigment that carries oxygen in the blood, breaks down into bilirubin. The liver converts bilirubin into a water-soluble form, which then passes into bile and is eventually removed from the body.
In Gilbert’s syndrome, the faulty gene means that bilirubin is not converted at the normal rate, so it builds up in the bloodstream and can cause jaundice.
Diagnosing Gilbert’s syndrome
Gilbert’s disease is often diagnosed in the late teens or early twenties. It’s fairly easy to diagnose, so there’s usually no need to do a genetic test for it.
Your doctor will take a blood sample and do a full blood count. He or she will also test how well your liver is working, and check your bilirubin levels. If there are high levels of water-insoluble bilirubin but the other tests are normal, this is usually because of Gilbert’s syndrome.
If you have jaundice, your doctor will run some tests to rule out other possible causes that are more serious than Gilbert’s syndrome, such as liver disease.
Treating Gilbert’s syndrome
You don’t usually need treatment for Gilbert’s syndrome as it causes no health problems. The jaundice is nothing to worry about and will come and go.