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What can doctors do to prevent newborn jaundice or hyperbilirubinemia?

Jaundice, or neonatal hyperbilirubinemia is a straightforward medical complication that if left untreated, or treated improperly, can have a devastating consequence on the rest of an infant’s life.

Unchecked bilirubin levels

Jaundice is a yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes.  A yellow pigment called bilirubin builds up in the blood, causing the discoloration.  Many babies who have jaundice have no side effects at all; however, if the bilirubin levels build too high, there runs a risk of brain damage and other permanent medical conditions, which include:

  • Spasticity
  • Hearing problems
  • Vision problems
  • Dental complications
  • Cerebral palsy

Treating jaundice in infants

In order to prevent jaundice from becoming severe, doctors may recommend increasing the number of feedings in order to create more bowel movements, which help clear the body of bilirubin.  Additionally, being aware of when a baby may require more attention for jaundice is important.  Warning signs that a physician’s intervention may be needed include:

  • A high bilirubin level when checked before leaving the hospital
  • An early birth, 37 weeks or earlier
  • Jaundice develops within 24 hours of birth
  • Difficult breastfeeding
  • Bruising or bleeding under the scalp from a difficult labor and delivery
  • A genetic predisposition, including parent, brother, or sister who were required to have light therapy, otherwise known as phototherapy

Once it has been determined medical intervention is necessary, there are treatments available, including:

Phototherapy:  The baby is put under special white or blue lights called bili-lights, wearing only a diaper and glasses to protect the eyes.  The lights help change the bilirubin to a form that can be disposed of through urine.

Exchange transfusions: This therapy is for babies who do not respond to phototherapy.  In this case, the baby will receive a special kind of blood transfusion where the baby’s blood is removed slowly, and replaced with donor blood.

Effective medical treatments

Most babies will require no treatment, and the less severe cases will go away within 2 to 3 weeks.

For more severe cases, a physician should be consulted to determine the best course of action to prevent unnecessary injury to an infant.

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