Kernicterus is a rare type of brain damage that occurs in a newborn with severe jaundice (yellowing). It happens when a substance in the blood, bilirubin, builds up to very high levels and spreads into the brain tissues. This causes permanent brain damage. Kernicterus may be prevented by treating jaundice early before it gets severe.
A low-level buildup of bilirubin is normal. This is called mild jaundice, and it gives a newborn a slightly yellowish tint to the skin and sometimes the eyes.
After birth, it takes a few days for the newborn’s liver to effectively remove bilirubin from the blood. With feedings every two to three hours, mild jaundice will usually go away on its own after a few days. If a baby has any signs of jaundice at birth, he or she needs to be watched closely.
Kernicterus has likely already started if a baby has one or more of these symptoms: extreme sleepiness and lethargy; does not respond to touching or does not startle from sudden movements; an abnormal high-pitched cry; poor muscle tone, including unusual muscle flexing; seizures; and a fever.
Long-term damages from kernicterus include: movement difficulties, hearing loss or deafness, learning problems, developmental disabilities, and problems moving eyes.
Your doctor diagnoses kernicterus through a physical exam and knowledge of a child’s history. Blood tests to measure bilirubin levels are also done. So, the question is, can kernicterus be prevented? Yes, with proper testing and treatment.
If a baby is still in the hospital and has signs of jaundice, the doctor will perform a blood test measuring the bilirubin level. High levels require treatment, either by phototherapy or blood transfusion. Also, babies should be fed at least every one to three hours during the first couple of weeks of their life as this helps keep bilirubin moving out of the body through urine and stool.
Quick treatment may help prevent further brain damage. Long-term treatment for brain damage depends on a child’s specific problems. Typical treatment includes physical therapy, speech therapy and special education.
Kernicterus can have life-long consequences to a baby and the family. This calls for an immediate and careful investigation of the entire labor and delivery process to determine whether this injury could have been prevented. Often, evidence in the medical records shows significant problems and gives clear proof that the unfortunate outcome could have been prevented with responsible medical care.