When red blood cells break down, they produce a yellowish substance that travels through the liver and digestive system before it exits the body. This substance is bilirubin. Typically, bilirubin levels are fairly low and have minor effects. For example, the yellowing of the skin around a bruise is the result of bilirubin. However, when bilirubin levels become excessively high, a person can experience the yellowing of their skin most people know as jaundice. Many conditions can cause hyperbilirubinemia or high bilirubin levels.
Rarely, red blood cells may break down abnormally. The cells rupture and release their contents into the blood around them. Experts refer to this breakdown by many names, but the most common is hemolysis. This unusual breakdown can cause hemolytic anemia, a type of anemia with various possible side effects. If this is a chronic issue, increased amounts of bilirubin can collect in the liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts. Hemolysis can be the result of medications, autoimmune disorders, or a genetic issue.
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