Newborn Jaundice and Kernicterus

Newborn Jaundice Treatment

What is the treatment for jaundice in newborns?

The need to treat jaundice in newborns is determined by interpreting the total bilirubin level in relation to the newborns age in hours. If the level is deemed to be too high, or if it is rising too quickly, treatment is necessary. Sometimes, all that is needed for treatment is close monitoring of the bilirubin levels, and no further interventions may be necessary. In certain instances, treatment for neonatal jaundice can occur at home, while in other cases, admission to a hospital is necessary.

Newborn jaundice and kernicterus facts

  • Jaundice in newborns is yellowing of the skin due to excessive bilirubin.
  • Kernicterus is a type of brain damage due to excessive bilirubin in the blood.
  • Signs and symptoms of jaundice include skin yellowing of the face, then chest, abdomen and extremities; the whites of the eyes may become yellowish.
  • Contact your baby's doctor if the skin color becomes yellowish or orange colored, if the baby will not sleep, will not wake up easily, is very fussy or decreases its urine and fecal output.
  • Emergency medical care should be sought if the baby is constantly crying (especially at a high pitch), has an arched body or has either a stiff or limp (floppy) body, and may have odd eye movements.
  • Jaundice can be diagnosed by measuring bilirubin in the blood.
  • Jaundice is treated by exposing the baby to special lights (the baby should not be placed in the sunlight); some may require more milk intake and a few may need a blood exchange transfusion.
  • Risk factors for jaundice are common (about 60% of all babies have jaundice); preterm birth, dark skin color, East Asian or Mediterranean Descent, feeding difficulties, jaundice in siblings, bruising, or in babies whose mothers that have O blood type or are Rh negative.
  • Your baby should be checked for jaundice in the hospital and again 48 hours after leaving the hospital.
  • If your baby has jaundice, follow the instructions of your doctor for treatment and follow-up.
  • If your baby is affected by kernicterus, there are local and national groups that may help you address the special needs for your child.

What is jaundice in newborns?

Jaundice is the yellow color seen in the skin of many newborns. Jaundice happens when a chemical called bilirubin builds up in the baby's blood. During pregnancy, the mother's liver removes bilirubin for the baby, but after birth the baby's liver must remove the bilirubin. In some babies, the liver might not be developed enough to efficiently get rid of bilirubin. When too much bilirubin builds up in a new baby's body, the skin and whites of the eyes might look yellow. This yellow coloring is called jaundice.

What is kernicterus?

When severe jaundice goes untreated for too long, it can cause a condition called kernicterus. Kernicterus is a type of brain damage that can result from high levels of bilirubin in a baby's blood. It can cause athetoid cerebral palsy and hearing loss. Kernicterus also causes problems with vision and teeth and sometimes can cause intellectual disabilities. Early detection and management of jaundice can prevent kernicterus.

What are the signs and symptoms of jaundice in newborns?

Jaundice usually appears first on the face and then moves to the chest, belly, arms, and legs as bilirubin levels get higher. The whites of the eyes can also look yellow. Jaundice can be harder to see in babies with darker skin color. The baby's doctor or nurse can test how much bilirubin is in the baby's blood.

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