Severe cases of jaundice can threaten the lives of infants or cause them to have permanent and debilitating brain damage. Most cases of jaundice are harmless if treated appropriately.
What is Jaundice?
Jaundice is a common condition found in 60 percent of term infants and 80 percent of preterm infants. Also known as hyperbilirubinemia, jaundice is caused by excessive levels of bilirubin, which is a pigment in bile. Bilirubin is a substance in the body that a healthy liver would normally filter out of the body by excreting it through bile and urine. But because newborns are often born with underdeveloped livers, it is sometimes difficult for their bodies to process bilirubin.
The buildup of bilirubin in an infant’s soft tissues causes his or her skin or eyes to turn yellow. The condition may be difficult to notice in children with darker skin tones. Symptoms of jaundice typically peak three or four days after birth and begin to subside on the fifth day.
How is Jaundice Treated?
Bilirubin is a neurotoxin that can destroy or seriously impair nerve tissue, such as brain cells. Therefore, recognizing that jaundice has developed is critical for the infant’s health. Doctors will usually diagnose jaundice via a visual inspection, but often blood tests are needed to confirm the diagnosis.
Mild cases of jaundice will typically resolve on their own within about two weeks. Moderate to severe cases are usually treated with phototherapy, which involves exposing the baby to a special wavelength of light that helps to process the bilirubin.
Jaundice can cause dehydration, which in turn can cause a further buildup of bilirubin. In severe cases of jaundice, kernicterus can occur if abnormal amounts of bilirubin start to build up in the brain. Kernicterus causes a rare neurological condition known as bilirubin encephalopathy (BE). This condition can also occur when moderate cases are left untreated. BE can cause permanent brain damage and various neurological disorders including athetoid movement disorders, impaired vision, and hearing loss. It may be necessary for the infant to have a blood transfusion to replace part of his or her blood with that that has a healthy level of bilirubin.
If jaundice is ignored and left to progress, an infant may experience symptoms such as:
- Difficulty in feeding
- Decreased alertness
- Low-muscle tone
- Rigidness in limbs
- High-pitched crying
- Seizures and muscle spasms