Although it’s a common misconception that jaundice is relatively harmless and that most babies who develop it won’t face any problems, the fact is that if left untreated, it can lead to serious medical complications. It’s important to understand the risks surrounding jaundice, including Kernicterus, and what treatment options you have for your infant.

What is Kernicterus?

Kernicterus, also known as Hyperbilirubinemia, is a  rare brain damage condition that occurs due to high levels of bilirubin. Bilirubin is the yellow pigment seen on babies with jaundice; its color comes from the body’s attempt to dispose red blood cells.

Although in many cases, there is no known way to discern which infant will develop jaundice severe enough to cause Kernicterus, babies with Rh hemolytic disease are at a heightened risk.

Symptoms of Kernicterus

Kernicterus symptoms will greatly depend upon if its in an early or later stage of the disorder.

Symptoms associated with the early stage of Kernicterus include:

  • Poor feeding and sucking
  • Excessive jaundice
  • Hypotonia
  • Fatigue and lethargy

As Kernicterus progresses, symptoms may include:

  • High-pitched shrieks and cry
  • Seizures
  • Bulging on the infant’s “soft spot” (fontanel)

As Kernicterus reaches the most severe stage, symptoms may include:

  • Hearing loss (high-frequency)
  • An increase in seizures
  • Muscle stiffness and problems with movement

What Can Kernicterus Lead to?

It’s extremely important that jaundice is monitored, especially within the first 24 hours of the condition. Along with the aforementioned symptoms, Kernicterus can lead to a number of neurological disorders, some slight such as minor learning disabilities, and some as serious as athetoid cerebral palsy. Other risks and complications include complete hearing loss, and even death.

What is the Treatment for Kernicterus?

Treatment for the condition depends on the age of the baby (in hours) and what the level of bilirubin actually is. Light therapy might be something you want to discuss with your doctor if the baby has high levels of bilirubin, but if the baby has had high levels of bilirubin for a while, your doctor is likely to start the process of exchange transfusions, getting more normal-celled blood into the baby’s system as soon as possible.

How is Kernicterus a Birth Injury?

Some people think that birth injuries are mistakes made at the child’s birth that affects him or her for a lifetime –or at least for a few years. While this is generally true, Kernicterus may qualify as a birth injury if a physician fails to detect and monitor the high levels of bilirubin.

While no parent or doctor could have caused Kernicterus in the baby,it’s the doctor’s responsibility to treat the condition before it escalates. Mistreatment of this condition could result in brain damage that will change the infant’s life forever.