Gilbert's syndrome

  • Gilbert's (zhil-bairs) syndrome is a fairly common liver disorder that is present at birth, but usually only becomes apparent in the teens or early adulthood. People with the condition have a mild increase in the level of a yellow pigment in the blood called bilirubin (billy-roo-bin). It is not a serious disease.

    When old red blood cells are broken down, bilirubin is produced. The bilirubin is then carried in the blood to the liver. The liver uses chemicals, called enzymes, to break down the bilirubin. Gilbert's syndrome happens when one of the enzymes that helps the liver remove bilirubin from the blood is not working properly. Apart from the minor problem with clearing bilirubin, the liver functions quite normally.

    It is estimated that between three and seven per cent of people have Gilbert's syndrome, and it is more common in males than females. The condition is thought to be inherited. It is also known as Meulengracht disease.

    Signs and symptoms of Gilbert's syndrome

    It is rare that your child would have any major symptoms with Gilbert's syndrome. Occasionally, you might notice that your child has mild yellowness of the skin (jaundice). The whites of their eyes may become yellow at times – this is likely to be more obvious when they have an illness, such as a cold. Other things may trigger an episode of jaundice, including:

    • dehydration
    • fasting
    • menstruation
    • overexertion.

    Except for the raised bilirubin level in the blood, your child's liver function will be normal.

    When to see a doctor

    Even though Gilbert's syndrome is not serious, if your child shows signs of having the condition they should be seen by a GP. It is important for the doctor to make sure your child does not have a more serious liver disease.

    A diagnosis of Gilbert's syndrome is made when there is a persistent increased level of bilirubin, but other liver function tests are normal. Blood tests may need to be repeated a few times to confirm the diagnosis, and other tests may be necessary in some patients.

    Treatment for Gilbert's syndrome

    Gilbert's syndrome does not require treatment, and it will not interfere with a normal lifestyle.

    If your child is looking more jaundiced than normal, see your local GP. There may be another cause for the jaundice, and further blood tests may be needed.

    Key points to remember

    • Gilbert's syndrome is not a serious disease and there are not usually any major symptoms.
    • Gilbert's syndrome needs to be diagnosed with blood tests to ensure that your child does not have a more serious liver disease.
    • Gilbert's syndrome does not require treatment and will not interfere with a normal lifestyle.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    Does too much bilirubin in the blood lead to blood problems like anaemia? 

    No, the high increased levels of bilirubin in the blood are not harmful, and do not lead to any other medical problems. 

    Should my child have a special diet to avoid episodes of jaundice?

    There are very few lifestyle changes that need to be made for children with Gilbert's syndrome, including dietary changes. It is always wise to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital General Medicine department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed June 2018.

    This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practising clinician.

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