Infant Jaundice and the Risk to Your Child

Baby's HeadNewborn jaundice is a well-known and exceedingly common health condition experienced by infants during the first weeks of life. Jaundice is observed in 2.4% to 15% of otherwise healthy newborns during the first two weeks after birth. (You can also find data suggesting that 60% of term newborns and 80% of preterm newborns will become clinically jaundiced, so it is hard to know what to believe.) Most are breast fed. Although not completely harmless, newborn jaundice is typically not cause for alarm. Jaundice usually resolves in days or a few weeks and is limited to regular sunlight exposure. Typically, jaundice is of little clinical significance and is considered physiologic.

This kind of jaundice is rarely seen in in formula fed infants, affecting only .1% of newborns taking formula. Infants with non-physiologic jaundice may appear normal and grow as expected during the first weeks after birth.

The risk is biliary atresia which impedes the flow of bile from the liver to the small intestine. This is a the most common cause of cholestatic (non-physiologic) jaundice in this population. It is rare, impacting somewhere between 1 in 10,000 to 19,000 newborns, depending upon who you ask.

How do you tell the difference between physiologic and pathological jaundice? The careful doctor will simply plot hour-specific bilirubin on a graph. This is the kind of plan and diligence that protects newborn babies.

Ideally, the patient is identified as at risk and is give something called RhoGAM and phototherapy. If that window passes, treatment of biliary atresia is surgical - called a Kasai procedure -- during the critical window of 8-10 weeks of age. Newborns with biliary atresia with correctable lesions typically have good outcomes with direct drainage. If the child does not have a correctable lesion, the outcome will less clear. The fear is portal hypertension and the need for a liver transplant.

Infant jaundice still needs to be taken seriously and properly monitored and managed by both parents and pediatricians alike. If newborn jaundice is ignored and not treated, more serious cases occasionally develop into a very serious and even life threatening situation. In the worst case scenario untreated infant jaundice can eventually progress into a rare but deadly condition called kernicterus resulting in permanent injury to the brain.

So while the risk of long lasting harm is low, the risks are so grave that infant jaundice still needs to be taken seriously and properly monitored and managed by both parents and pediatricians alike. If newborn jaundice is ignored and not treated, more serious cases occasionally develop into a very serious and even life threatening situation. In the worst case scenario untreated infant jaundice can eventually progress into a rare but deadly condition called kernicterus resulting in permanent injury to the brain. There is also a fear bilirubin, the toxin produced by jaundice, may cause brain alterations that can lead to autism (although there is disagreement).

About Infant Jaundice

The medical condition known as jaundice occurs when levels of unprocessed bilirubin circulating in the bloodstream become too high. Bilirubin is basically a natural waste of the body's red blood cell recycling system. Red blood cells are the most common type of cell in human blood. Red blood cells are very unique because unlike all other cells they have no nucleus. This is allows them to be flexible and change shape which allowing blood to flow through narrow veins and blood vessels in the body.

While the lack of a nucleus makes red blood cells more flexible it also limits their cell life-span. The life and death of a red blood cell only lasts about 4 months. This means that literally millions of red blood cells are dying off and being replaced by new ones inside the body every day. When red blood cells die off they get broken down and the reusable leftovers are basically recycled and the non-reusable leftovers are disposed of through the urine. The process of red blood cell breakdown is call hemolysis.

The yellowish substance called bilirubin is one of the main byproducts that is leftover from the continuous breakdown of red blood cells (hemolysis). Unlike other byproducts of hemolysis, bilirubin is not reusable elsewhere in the body so it does not get recycled. In fact, bilirubin can actually be toxic to the body in high levels. This means that bilirubin leftover from the breakdown of red blood cells must be regularly disposed of.

Bilirubin comes in 2 forms inside the body: unconjugated and conjugated. When dying red blood cells are first broken down the bilirubin that is left is in the unconjugated form. Unconjugated bilirubin is not water soluble which means it cannot be disposed of through urination. Unconjugated bilirubin will continue to circulate and build up in the bloodstream. Normally the unconjugated bilirubin is filtered into the liver where it is converted to conjugated bilirubin. Conjugated bilirubin is water soluble which allows it to be disposed of through urination.

Jaundice occurs when the liver is not able to process bilirubin fast enough to keep pace with hemolysis. In adults jaundice typically occurs when the liver is damaged or impaired by disease. Jaundice in infants occurs so frequently because their liver is often underdeveloped or as efficient when they are first born. In the first few days of life the baby's new liver simply gets overworked and has trouble processing bilirubin fast enough to keep up with red blood cell breakdown. The result is a sudden backlog of unprocessed bilirubin that starts to buildup in the newborn's bloodstream.

Symptoms of Infant Jaundice

Jaundice in newborns is usually very easy to identify and diagnose. The first signs of newborn jaundice generally appears within the first 24 hours of life. The condition and outward symptoms will gradually increase in severity over the next several days. In most normal cases the jaundice will start to disappear the following week.

The hallmark symptom of jaundice in babies and adults is yellowing of the skin and eyes. Bilirubin has a strong yellow pigmentation so as levels of it in the blood increase it begins to alter the baby's color. The skin will begin to display a yellowish tint which is first noticeable in the face and chest. The white area in the eyes will also become noticeably yellow. Additional symptoms of babies with jaundice may include:

  • General fatigue and poor feeding
  • Baby seems jittery or abnormally cranky
  • Intense crying with arched back
  • High-pitch or abnormal sounding crying
Management & Treatment of Newborn Jaundice

Diagnosing infant jaundice is usually very easy. In most cases the doctors at the hospital will confirm that a baby has jaundice before being discharged. The standard policy in most cases is to monitor the baby's condition to make sure the jaundice is progressing normally without signs of abnormality. Exposing the baby to direct sunlight is often the most simple treatment method to help speed up the processing of bilirubin.

For cases of jaundice that are more severe or which do not clear up on a normal time frame, doctors will need to intervene with additional levels of treatment. The second level treatment for infant jaundice is phototherapy or light therapy. This involves keeping the baby under a special light which emits the type of ultraviolet light waves which are known to stimulate the processing of bilirubin. If this is not successful the third level of treatment of very severe jaundice is blood replacement transfusion. Some of the baby's jaundiced blood is removed and replaced with a transfusion of non-jaundiced donor blood.

One management issue is making sure there is communication between the pedestrian, the emergency room, and the hospital.

Resources
  • Maisels MJ, Newman TB. Kernicterus in otherwise healthy, breast-fed term newborns. Pediatrics 1995;96:730-733.
  • Linder N, et al. Unexplained neonatal jaundice as an early diagnostic sign of septicemia in the newborn. J Perinatol 1988;8:325-327.