Biliary atresia

Biliary atresia

Biliary atresia is a rare but serious liver disorder that affects newborn babies.

Key points to remember

  • biliary atresia is a rare but serious liver disorder that affects newborn babies
  • biliary atresia causes jaundice which continues after 2 weeks of age in newborn babies
  • special tests are needed to diagnose biliary atresia
  • treatment involves a surgical operation as early as possible to minimise liver damage
  • the operation is not always successful
  • if the liver is badly damaged, a liver transplant may be needed

What is biliary atresia?

Biliary atresia is a medical condition. Irritation and swelling - called inflammation - develops within the bile ducts around the time of birth. The inflammation can happen in any of the bile ducts inside and outside the liver. This causes bile duct damage. When the ducts are damaged the bile cannot flow out of the liver. Bile is trapped and causes scarring of the liver. This scarring is called fibrosis. The bile ducts outside the liver are always permanently damaged preventing any bile flow into the gut. The gall bladder is also affected.

What causes biliary atresia?

The cause of biliary atresia is not known. At this time there is no known way of preventing biliary atresia, or of predicting when it will occur.

What are the early signs of biliary atresia?

In the first few weeks of life, babies with biliary atresia often seem well apart from having yellow skin and whites of the eyes. This yellow colour is called jaundice. Most babies with jaundice are healthy and the jaundice fades over the next few weeks. In biliary atresia the jaundice does not fade or it gets worse over time.

The important signs are:

  • dark wee (urine) - baby urine should not have any colour
  • pale poos (stools) - white, cream grey or beige coloured (baby poos are normally green or yellow) 
  • bleeding which lasts longer than normal. Common places babies can bleed from are the nose or mouth

When should I seek help?

You should see your family doctor or midwife if your baby:

  • is still jaundiced at 2 weeks of age
  • becomes jaundiced after 2 weeks of age
  • has pale, white or light beige-coloured poo (bowel motions, stools) 
  • passes yellow or dark wee (urine)

How is biliary atresia diagnosed?

There are many reasons why your baby might be jaundiced after the age of 2 weeks. Your family doctor or midwife should check your baby. Your family doctor should ask for a blood test to help find the reason for the jaundice.

The blood test will usually show another cause for the jaundice. Biliary atresia is a very rare cause.

If biliary atresia is suspected, your family doctor will refer your baby to see a paediatrician (a specialist in children's health). 

Your baby may have:

  • more blood tests
  • an ultrasound scan of the liver
  • a liver biopsy 

How is biliary atresia treated?

The treatment for biliary atresia is a surgical operation called the Kasai procedure. The operation involves connecting part of the intestine directly to the liver so that bile is able to flow from the liver to the intestine. This operation works best if it is done when your baby is young (less than 2 months old). The operation does not always cure biliary atresia, even when it is done early.

If the operation does not help, then over time your child's liver will become more and more damaged. This leads to liver failure. The only cure for liver failure is a liver transplant.

What are the complications of biliary atresia?

Biliary atresia can cause a number of problems.

Growth problems: Your baby will not be able to digest the fats from breast milk or normal formula milk because bile (which is required for fat digestion) is not getting into the intestine. This leads to poor growth. Your baby may need a special feed that contains a different kind of fat, which they can digest better. Some babies require extra feeds or supplements given through a feeding tube to help them grow.

Vitamin deficiencies: Vitamins A, D, E and K dissolve in fat so they cannot be absorbed properly into the body in biliary atresia. Your baby will be given extra medication to provide these vitamins.

Itch: Liver disease may cause a baby to be very itchy. This problem does not affect all babies with jaundice, but it can be quite distressing. Your baby may be prescribed medicine to help with the itch.

If the Kasai operation is unsuccessful and the liver starts to fail, other problems may occur. Your specialist team will talk to you about the risks for your baby and the things to watch out for.

This page last reviewed 25 February 2016.
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