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Gilbert's syndrome

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Gilbert's syndrome is a common, harmless condition that is inherited (runs in families).

It is caused by a build-up of a yellow pigment, called bilirubin, in the blood.

Bilirubin is found naturally in the blood. It is formed when red blood cells break down. The body usually removes it, but in Gilbert's syndrome, this process does not work properly.

High levels of bilirubin in the blood can cause jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).

About 1 in 20 people have Gilbert's syndrome and it is more common in men than women. It is usually nothing to worry about and does not need treatment.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Most people with Gilbert's disease are not aware of it. The bilirubin level only goes up a little and stays within normal levels most of the time.

High levels of bilirubin in the blood can cause jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Gilbert's syndrome is hereditary and is 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. It builds up in the bloodstream and can cause jaundice.

Other than inheriting the abnormal gene, there are no known risk factors for developing Gilbert's syndrome. It is not related to any lifestyle habits or caused by any specific environment.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Gilbert's syndrome is often diagnosed in the late teens or early twenties. It is fairly easy to diagnose, so there is usually no need to do a genetic test for it.

Your GP will take a blood sample and do a full blood count. They 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.

Other factors that can cause bilirubin levels to rise

  • dehydration
  • fasting
  • illness, such as viral infection
  • stress
  • heavy physical exercise
  • lack of sleep

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

You do not usually need treatment for Gilbert's syndrome as it does not cause health problems. The jaundice is nothing to worry about and will come and go. 

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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