The Link Between Jaundice and Kernicterus

Attorneys Explain the Connection Between Newborn Jaundice and Kernicterus Birth Injury

Like many new or expecting parents, you may know that jaundice is a potential threat to your newborn. But few parents understand how serious the threat is. Most people have never heard of kernicterus. Jaundice is not kernicterus – but it is the first step towards this permanent form of infant brain damage.

Mild jaundice occurs in about 60 percent of newborn babies. It is one of the most common problems encountered in newborns. For most babies, jaundice usually gets better without treatment within 1 to 2 weeks. Because jaundice in newborns is common and usually benign, parents of jaundiced babies are often told they have nothing to worry about.

It is this reduced “concern” about newborn jaundice that puts many infants at risk.

What Is The Danger of Newborn Jaundice Becoming Kernicterus?

Because newborn jaundice is so common, there is always the risk of kernicterus. However, since jaundice is 100% treatable, kernicterus is 100% preventable. Yet it still occurs.

Kernicterus is caused by hyperbilirubinemia, or high bilirubin levels. Jaundice is the physical manifestation of high bilirubin. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment; therefore, jaundice can be seen by the naked eye. It appears as a yellow discoloration of the baby’s skin and the whites of the baby’s eyes.

If jaundice is allowed to advance, the yellowish coloring progresses from the baby’s face downward, descending to the chest, belly, arms and legs. Jaundice seen only in the face generally signifies a lower bilirubin level than jaundice that can be seen throughout the whole body.

Discoloration and other physical signs of kernicterus may be useful when monitoring the progression of jaundice in a baby, but only when used as a supplemental aid in conjunction with early kernicterus diagnosis.

Why Eyes Alone Cannot Determine Jaundice or Kernicterus

Jaundiced babies will show discoloration differently; therefore, it is not possible to accurately know the bilirubin levels by visual judgment alone.

The degree of discoloration of jaundice does not automatically equate to the actual level of bilirubin in the infant’s blood. In other words, some babies will show marked discoloration with only mild jaundice, while others can have very high bilirubin levels, yet show little or no noticeable change in color. Ancestry can also play a role in confusing the visible signs of jaundice, as discoloration can be less evident in darker-skinned babies.

A true diagnosis of severe jaundice must never deal in generalities. Kernicterus may be threatening to occur in any scenario involving neonatal jaundice. Proper management and treatment can completely prevent it.

Neonatal Jaundice - The Precursor of Kernicterus

By no means does all jaundice lead to kernicterus. But without aggressively monitoring and treating an infant with severe jaundice, kernicterus can develop. The result is permanent brain damage to the infant that is devastating and irreversible. If the baby survives acute kernicterus, the brain damage leads to developmental and motor disorders including cerebral palsy, deafness, and sometimes mental retardation.

No case of jaundice should ever evolve into kernicterus. If you have cause to believe your child was a victim of kernicterus brain damage, contact the birth injury lawyers at Ratzan Law Group. We believe in seeking and speaking the truth about kernicterus medical malpractice. Allow us to be your voice.

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