Kernicterus: Symptoms & Signs

Medically Reviewed on 10/15/2019

Kernicterus is a type of brain damage caused by high levels of bilirubin in a baby's blood. Jaundice begins with yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Kernicterus causes brain damage that leads to specific symptoms.

Kernicterus is an irreversible and chronic condition when untreated. Signs and symptoms associated with kernicterus include

  • extreme lethargy,
  • fever,
  • trouble feeding,
  • unusual eye movements,
  • muscle spasms,
  • reduced muscle tone,
  • uncontrollable high-pitched crying,
  • drowsiness,
  • limpness, and
  • stiffness of the whole body.

Consequences of untreated kernicterus include

Typically, jaundice in the newborn is treated in order to prevent the development of kernicterus.

Cause of kernicterus

Severe neonatal jaundice that goes untreated for too long can cause kernicterus.

Other kernicterus symptoms and signs

  • Drowsiness
  • Extreme Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Limpness
  • Muscle Spasms
  • Reduced Muscle Tone
  • Trouble Feeding
  • Uncontrollable High-Pitched Crying
  • Unusual Eye Movements


Jameson, J. Larry, et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2018.