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What is Biliary Atresia? Symptoms, Causes and Diagnosis

Biliary atresia is a chronic and progressive liver problem. It becomes evident shortly after birth. The bile ducts become blocked and the bile can’t leave the liver. Due to this, the liver becomes damaged and this affects various vital functions.

If the disease isn’t treated, it can be life-threatening. Learn all about biliary atresia in this article!

What causes biliary atresia?

The cause of biliary atresia isn’t exactly known. Many experts believe that babies are born with biliary atresia, which implies that the bile duct alteration occurs during pregnancy.

However, other opinions suggest that the disease appears after birth, due to exposure to toxic or infectious substances. It isn’t linked to drugs the mother has taken or illnesses she suffered during pregnancy.

Currently, experts don’t know if it has a genetic link. In general, the disease isn’t likely to recur more than once in a family.


Babies affected by this condition often seem healthy at birth. However, symptoms of the disease develop between two weeks and two months of life. The symptoms of biliary atresia may also resemble other medical conditions or problems.

Some of the symptoms that may appear include:

  • Jaundice. Yellowing of the skin and eyes. It occurs due to high and irregular bilirubin levels in the blood that can be attributed to inflammation, other liver cell abnormalities, or bile duct obstructions.
  • Dark urine and pale stools.
  • Distended abdomen and weight loss.


To be able to diagnose the disease, medical professionals request different tests and blood tests.

Blood tests

Blood tests measure the following parameters:

  • Liver enzymes. Elevated liver enzyme levels can alert doctors to liver damage or injury. However, when this happens, the enzymes pass into the blood.
  • Bilirubin. The bilirubin the liver produces is excreted into the bile. High bilirubin levels often indicate bile flow obstruction or a defect in liver bile processing.
  • Albumin and total protein. Below normal levels are associated with chronic liver diseases.
  • Coagulation tests. Prothrombin Time (PT) and Partial Thromboplastin Time (PTT), which measure the time it takes for blood to clot. Damage to liver cells and biliary obstruction can interfere with the blood clotting process.
  • Blood culture. It checks to see if there’s a blood infection caused by bacteria that can affect the liver.

Diagnostic imaging

The imaging tests medical professionals commonly resort to are:

  • Abdominal ultrasound. A diagnostic imaging technique that uses high-frequency sound waves. However, medical professionals can use ultrasound scans to obtain images of the liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts.
  • Hepatobiliary scan (HIDA). A radioactive isotope is injected into the vein. If the isotope passes from the liver to the intestine, then the bile ducts open and the medical professional will confirm there’s no biliary atresia.
  • Liver biopsy. A medical professional takes a sample of liver tissue. Then, they examine it and use it to distinguish biliary atresia from other liver problems.
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