What is jaundice and kernicterus?

By Blackwater Law

Jaundice is thought to affect up to 60% of newborn babies and in most instances is not a cause for concern. However, sometimes it can lead to complications, which if not appropriately managed can have long-lasting implications.

What causes jaundice?

Jaundice is caused by a build-up of bilirubin in the blood. When red blood cells are produced, a yellow substance called bilirubin is created.

Babies have a high number of red blood cells which are broken down and replaced frequently, which means that they create a lot of bilirubin. Due to the fact that their livers are still relatively undeveloped, it can cause issues, especially for premature babies. As a result, newborn babies are particularly prone to developing jaundice.

What are the symptoms of jaundice?

Jaundice symptoms are visible and in most instances relatively easy to identify. The main symptoms include:

  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
  • Dark, yellow urine. A newborn baby should have clear-coloured urine
  • Yellowing of the palms of the hands and/or soles of the feet

Depending on the level of bilirubin and the condition of the baby it may be possible to monitor jaundice at home as often the symptoms will disappear of their own accord within 10-14 days. In other rarer cases, treatment may be required in order to prevent a further complication called kernicterus.

Although complications of jaundice are incredibly rare, the hospital and midwife team should carefully monitor babies with jaundice that are at a higher level of risk. A failure to correctly monitor could lead to patients pursuing a hospital negligence claim.

What is kernicterus?

In rare cases, if jaundice is left undiagnosed or untreated it can lead to a more serious condition called kernicterus. This occurs when babies with very high levels of bilirubin (hyperbilirubinaemia) cross the thin layer of tissue that separates the brain and blood.

Given the severity of kernicterus, it is very important that babies presenting with these symptoms are identified quickly and monitored in order to minimise the risk of long-term damage occurring. In instances where a baby develops kernicterus due to a lack of monitoring, it may be possible to pursue a kernicterus or jaundice claim as part of a wider birth injury compensation claim.

Bilirubin in high levels can damage the brain and spinal cord, which can be life-threatening. The three risk factors for potentially developing kernicterus are:

  • Baby has a very high level of bilirubin in their blood
  • The level of bilirubin being produced is increasingly very rapidly
  • No treatment has been received for jaundice

If left untreated, kernicterus can result in brain damage. This can lead to permanent problems and conditions such as cerebral palsy, problems with eye movements, involuntary twitching, learning difficulties and hearing loss, making it crucial that kernicterus is identified in a timely manner.

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