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What is bilirubin?

Bilirubin is an orange-yellowish pigment in our blood. It forms in the liver when part of our red blood cells breaks down and is passed out as bile.

Although everyone has bilirubin in their body, a high level is a symptom of medical conditions such as anemia and Jaundice.

These conditions can be detected with Bilirubin Test. Learn the uses of bilirubin test and why you should carry out one this breastfeeding week.

Bilirubin Test

Uses of a bilirubin test

A bilirubin test measures the amount of bilirubin in a patient’s blood or urine. It also helps evaluate whether or not a treatment is working and can reveal the presence or possibility of risk of the following medical conditions:

  1. Jaundice — especially in newborns and children.
  2. Sickle cell disease and anaemia.
  3. Bile duct blockage.
  4. Liver diseases, such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and gallstones.


In newborns and children, Jaundice is the most common reason to check bilirubin levels. This can be done using a bilirubin meter or a blood sample.

Where the former is decided, the meter is directed at the baby’s skin to calculate their bilirubin level by analysing how the light reflects off or is absorbed by their skin. On the other hand, if a blood sample is to be used, the baby’s heel is pricked with a needle to get blood drawn. The result detected from blood drawn is then used to decide whether treatment is needed or not.

Usefulness of the test to breastfeeding mothers

A bilirubin test is advised to breastfeeding mothers because jaundice can occur due to factors in a mother’s milk that allow a baby to absorb bilirubin from the intestine.

With the test result, your doctor will be better informed on the health of the mother and possible challenges for the baby.

Bilirubin Test

Who else needs the test?

You might also need to carry out a the test if:

  • You are showing signs of Jaundice.
  • Your urine is dark or cloudy.
  • You have anaemia or low red blood cells.
  • You are suffering abdominal pain or swelling.
  • You are always tired.
  • You have a history of heavy drinking
  • You have been exposed to hepatitis.

How to prepare for the test

Before a bilirubin test, patients are expected not to have eaten for at least 4 hours preceding the test to avoid false results. Your doctor may also advise you not to use certain medications that can influence your bilirubin levels.

Normal range levels

The average bilirubin level for an adult is:

  • Direct (also called conjugated) bilirubin: less than 0.3 mg/dL (less than 5.1 µmol/L)
  • Total bilirubin: 0.1 to 1.2 mg/dL (1.71 to 20.5 µmol/L)

In newborns, higher bilirubin levels are expected due to birth stress. As such, the normal indirect bilirubin would be under 5.2 mg/dL within the first 24 hours of birth. However, this number will drop in the days succeeding their arrival.

However, if your newborns’ high bilirubin levels don’t level out in a few weeks, it may be a sign of:

  • Blood type incompatibility between mother and child.
  • Lack of oxygen.
  • An inherited infection.
  • Liver diseases.

When to contact a doctor

In many cases, high bilirubin isn’t a sign of anything that needs immediate treatment. Nonetheless, please see a doctor immediately if you experience intense abdominal pain or tenderness, drowsiness, black or bloody stools, fever, skin rash, or bleeding.

Also, should you need to carry out a bilirubin test on you or your child, please call us on 016291000 or 016290998 to schedule an appointment or walk into any Afriglobal Medicare test center near you for all your diagnostics needs and assistance.

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