Untreated Jaundice and Kernicterus in Newborns Approximately 60% of babies born in the United States have a small amount of jaundice in the days following birth. A yellowing of the skin, eyes, and tissues, jaundice usually goes away within a few days as the baby continues its development and the liver starts to do its work.

Kernicterus, however, is a severe form of jaundice that can cause severe birth injuries to your baby. It’s also preventable if an ob-gyn properly monitors a newborn’s bilirubin levels.

Bilirubin, jaundice, and kernicterus

Bilirubin is an orange-yellow substance produced during the normal breakdown of red blood cells. It passes through the liver before being excreted out of the body. If a baby has high levels of bilirubin, it’s usually an indication of liver problems. Excess bilirubin can travel to a baby’s brain and cause permanent brain damage.

Jaundice is caused by an excess of bilirubin in the blood, called hyperbilirubinemia. During pregnancy, the mother’s liver does the job of removing bilirubin for the baby. Many infants are born with slightly underdeveloped livers, so they can’t remove all the bilirubin from their blood on their own. Most hospitals test newborns for jaundice before they go home—typically at three days and again when they’re a week old. In most cases, jaundice goes away on its own, with little or no treatment. However, when jaundice is severe and isn’t properly treated, it can lead to the condition kernicterus.

Untreated jaundice can cause severe injuries

The chain reaction of jaundice to kernicterus works like this. When an infant has a severe case of jaundice, the excess bilirubin in their system can pass into their brain, causing a condition called acute bilirubin encephalopathy. If that condition isn’t treated properly, it can lead to permanent brain damage, called kernicterus. Children with kernicterus may suffer side effects like a permanent upward gaze, hearing loss, cerebral palsy, under-developed tooth enamel, learning disabilities, and, in tragic cases, death.

Risk factors for jaundice

Doctors, ob-gyns, and midwives should always be aware of and prepared for risk factors that can cause jaundice.

  • Premature babies have a higher risk due to underdeveloped livers.
  • Babies with darker skin color make it harder to detect yellowing of the skin.
  • Families of East Asian or Mediterranean descent are more prone to jaundice.
  • Newborns who aren’t eating or dirtying their diapers well are more likely to have jaundice.
  • If a child’s sibling had jaundice, they have a higher risk of developing it.
  • A baby with bruises at birth is more likely to develop jaundice, as the body’s healing of bruises causes higher levels of bilirubin.
  • Women with blood type O or Rh negative tend to have children with higher-than-normal bilirubin levels.

Jaundice is a common and treatable condition in newborns. When jaundice is allowed to develop into the life-threatening condition kernicterus, your child may have been a victim of medical negligence.

If you believe your child suffered a birth injury because of a medical professional’s negligence, talk to the attorneys at Crandall & Pera Law. You may be entitled to compensation for your medical bills, other expenses, and pain and suffering. To schedule a free consultation with a birth injury lawyer in Ohio or Kentucky, please call 877-686-8879, or fill out our contact form.