Kernicterus and Brain Damage

The Effects of Kernicterus: Permanent Brain Damage of Varying Degrees

When extreme newborn jaundice is allowed to progress, bilirubin – the yellow pigment that causes jaundice – enters the infant’s brain. Bilirubin is toxic to nerves and nerve tissue. As the baby’s brain tissue is exposed to bilirubin, the invaded areas of the brain become stained by deposits of the yellow pigment. In cases of kernicterus, bilirubin destroys certain brain cells that are associated with specific hearing, gaze and movement disorders.

The early progressive stage when kernicterus brain damage is occurring is called acute bilirubin encephalopathy. Encephalopathy means disease or damage to the brain. Up to this point, immediate treatment to reduce the bilirubin load can stop the progression of bilirubin into the brain, and potential brain damage may actually be reversed or minimized.

It is only a matter of hours before brain damage becomes permanent, and kernicterus has occurred. This is called chronic bilirubin encephalopathy. The extent of brain injury depends largely on the amount and duration of the brain’s exposure to the bilirubin.           

What Happens to Children With Kernicterus Brain Damage?

In the weeks following the acute kernicterus event, parents may be able to notice abnormal mannerisms and behavior in their newborn. The specific resulting disorders will depend upon the severity of the injury, and may take a few years to diagnose. Long-term effects of kernicterus brain damage range from mild disorders where the child can live a full, productive life with adaptive support, to severe disorders where the child will be totally dependent.

Chronic kernicterus results in varying degrees of:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Hearing loss or deafness
  • Mental retardation
  • Gaze abnormalities, especially upward gaze paralysis
  • Enamel abnormalities of the baby teeth

Some children with kernicterus brain damage are mentally challenged, and will have mild to severe mental retardation. Yet in many cases, the child’s intelligence is not affected. While their bodies may be tragically injured, their minds are keen.

Depending on the child’s specific problems, there will be an abundance of long-term needs, including physical therapy, speech therapy, medical treatment, medical devices, and special education.

Brain injured children require special consideration to help them become as independent, productive and happy as possible as they develop into teenagers and adults. These issues are only a piece of the story, as the level of financial burden and hands-on support is significant. The importance of long-term care, medical needs, and professional therapy cannot be overstated.

Get Answers To Your “What If” Questions

Was your jaundiced baby caused any harm because your doctor failed to provide proper treatment? What if the nurses had placed your newborn under bili lights as a precaution? What if the hospital had not discharged your newborn until they knew (and trusted) the baby’s total serum bilirubin levels?

Families turn to our law firm to demand justice and provide for their child’s future, because we believe in seeking and speaking the truth. Our medical malpractice attorneys will uncover the facts of your case and provide you with an accurate, truthful evaluation of the cause of your child’s brain damage. To have your case reviewed, contact our kernicterus lawyers here or by telephone at 855-RLGLAW1 (855-754-5291).

Learn more about kernicterus brain damage.