Jaundice in newborns is a fairly common occurrence that is easily diagnosed by doctors and easily treated. However, if jaundice is overlooked or undiagnosed, extreme cases of jaundice can develop into a serious condition called kernicterus. Kernicterus can result in permanent damage to a baby’s brain.
Kernicterus occurs when there are very high levels of bilirubin in the body. Bilirubin is a waste product resulting from the break-down of old red blood cells and is usually eliminated by the body via urine or stool. If the bilirubin is not discarded, then it builds up in the blood and can cause yellowing of the skin, eyes and mucus (jaundice). Jaundice can be verified by a blood test. Jaundice is often treated by phototherapy (light therapy) and should be carefully monitored in follow up doctor visits.
If the jaundice is not diagnosed it can develop into a potentially harmful condition called kernicterus. Extremely high levels of bilirubin can infiltrate the blood and ultimately the newborn’s brain. Kernicterus can result in brain injury and may cause Cerebral Palsy, mental retardation, hearing loss and even death.
The warning signs of kernicterus in an infant may include:
- Extreme yellowing of the skin eyes
- Lethargy or weakness
- Difficulty feeding or sucking
- High fever
- Unusual high pitched cry
- Abnormally arched back
- Floppy limbs
Treatment at this stage may require blood transfusions for the newborn.
Kernicterus is quite rare, but it has a higher incidence in some populations such as:
- Newborns bruised during childbirth
- Premature babies
- Babies with blood incompatibility with the mother
- Babies of East Asian/Mediterranean descent
- Babies who are not nursing/feeding well
Jaundice is easily diagnosed and generally should not progress to a condition of kernicterus. Pediatricians and other medical professionals know to look for telltale signs of jaundice in newborns. Jaundice is confirmed by a common blood test that will detect high levels of bilirubin in the blood. Most doctors will check a newborn for jaundice and carefully monitor the infant to ensure that the baby is properly treated.
Unfortunately, even though kernicterus is preventable, some cases of newborn kernicterus do occur and may be the result of medical negligence. If you live in Kentucky and your child has suffered complications as the result of kernicterus, you may want to speak with a Kentucky medical malpractice attorney that handles Medical Malpractice/Medical Negligence cases.
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