Caused by an overabundance of bilirubin, a pigment produced by the liver, jaundice tints the skin and eyes yellow. Newborns, especially premature infants, often suffer from jaundice because their livers are not yet capable of filtering out enough bilirubin. For most children, the problem resolves itself without the need for treatment as the infant’s liver catches up.
What Happens When It Doesn’t Fix Itself?
For some newborns, though, jaundice may not resolve on its own. Sufficiently high levels of bilirubin—about 25 mg per deciliter—can cause numerous health problems, including deafness and cerebral palsy. You should contact your pediatrician immediately if your newborn shows signs of jaundice within the first 24 hours of life, if the jaundice spreads or worsens, or if your infant develops a fever over 100 degrees.
High levels of bilirubin cause an especially serious form of cerebral palsy, called kernicterus. The symptoms of mid- to late-stage kernicterus include seizures, high-frequency hearing loss, speech difficulties, intellectual disabilities, muscle rigidity and movement disorders. Left untreated, kernicterus can be fatal.
However, serious conditions caused by high levels of bilirubin, such as kernicterus, are preventable with the right treatments. Simple light therapy can break down bilirubin, allowing the body to excrete it. In more severe cases where light therapy is insufficient, blood transfusions can be used to give the infant relief from jaundice.
Types of Jaundice
Not all varieties of infant jaundice are the same.
- Physiological or normal jaundice is a mild form that generally occurs within two to four days of birth and disappears after one to two weeks. Unless the symptoms worsen, normal jaundice requires no treatment.
- Jaundice of prematurity occurs in premature infants. It requires treatment to ensure the newborn’s body can handle the levels of bilirubin.
- Breast milk jaundice is caused by substances in the mother’s breast milk raising the infant’s bilirubin levels. Not to be confused with breastfeeding jaundice, which is caused when babies do not receive sufficient breast milk.