In Severe Cases, Newborn Jaundice Could Cause Cerebral Palsy

jaundiceNewborn jaundice is a very common medical condition that affects many babies, and the issue usually resolves itself on its own with minimal intervention. However, severe cases of newborn jaundice can be catastrophic, even causing cerebral palsy in some cases. Parents should understand the causes of newborn jaundice, warning signs of severe cases, and the risk of cerebral palsy that accompanies severe newborn jaundice.

Bilirubin and Jaundice

Bilirubin is a natural human waste product that builds up in the bloodstream as red blood cells break down. The pigmentation of bilirubin can cause children with excess bilirubin levels to have a yellowish pallor that may discolor skin and the whites of the eyes. Placentas usually filter bilirubin, but as many as 60% of newborns display symptoms of jaundice and have excess bilirubin levels immediately after birth. Hyperbilirubinemia is the medical term for extreme levels of excess bilirubin, and this condition may cause cerebral palsy if left unchecked for too long.

Doctors generally conduct a blood test on a newborn baby within the first 24 hours of life and may also conduct tests to judge the baby’s skin color and bilirubin levels. Most cases of newborn jaundice dissipate within a few days after birth, but doctors must pay very close attention if jaundice persists for more than two weeks. Hyperbilirubinemia can lead to kernicterus, or jaundice-induced brain damage. Children who suffer from this condition commonly face long-term medical conditions such as hearing and vision problems, and cerebral palsy is also possible in extreme cases.

Jaundice Symptoms

The symptoms of newborn jaundice are generally mild and will disappear on their own shortly after birth as the baby’s bodily fluids regulate and the baby begins feeding. The most common symptoms are yellowish discoloration without any other adverse symptoms, and doctors may recommend increased feedings to encourage more bowel movements and more effective bilirubin level reduction.

Some infants will require more medical attention for severe jaundice. If a baby has high bilirubin levels upon leaving the hospital, the attending physician may require a follow-up test within a day or two. Children born prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy, who develop jaundice within 24 hours after birth, or who have difficulty breastfeeding face the highest risk of jaundice-induced cerebral palsy. Children born with some genetic markers may also face increased risk of newborn jaundice. It may also be more difficult to detect jaundice in babies with darker skin, so doctors should pay close attention to the whites of the child’s eyes and coloration of the gums in such cases.

Treatments for Newborn Jaundice

Doctors generally recommend more frequent feedings for babies with jaundice so they can process excess bilirubin faster. Other treatments for severe cases of jaundice may include phototherapy or exchange transfusions if phototherapy does not work. Phototherapy involves exposing the baby’s body to white and blue lights; the baby wears only a diaper and protective eyewear as the lights help filter the excess bilirubin pigment out of the body. If an exchange transfusion is necessary, the baby will receive healthy donor blood free from bilirubin as they slowly remove the baby’s blood.

Unchecked jaundice can be extremely dangerous for newborns. Although most cases of jaundice resolve on their own with minimal side effects, some babies may be unable to process excess bilirubin as well as others and suffer brain damage from lack of treatment. Vigilance is crucial; bilirubin levels are generally highest three to five days after birth and attending physicians should check for symptoms of jaundice every eight to twelve hours. They should check again once the baby is about five days old.

Jaundice and Cerebral Palsy

Jaundice can eventually lead to kernicterus, a type of brain damage from excess bilirubin that can lead to symptoms of cerebral palsy. Bilirubin can enter brain tissue from the bloodstream if it reaches too high of a level, resulting in damage to various areas of the brain. It can be very difficult to predict the symptoms a child will experience from cerebral palsy, and symptoms can vary in severity widely from case to case. However, it is important for parents to remember that cerebral palsy does not improve over time; any brain damage experienced in the early stages of life is permanent and has the potential to negatively affect a child in countless ways.

Children who develop cerebral palsy from severe newborn jaundice may experience a host of physical and cognitive symptoms. Some of the most common cerebral palsy symptoms include musculoskeletal development issues, poor range of motion, cognitive and intellectual delays, social and behavioral delays, and more.

Cerebral palsy may not be curable and may not improve with time, but parents must remember that the condition is almost always preventable with appropriate prenatal and delivery care. When a baby develops cerebral palsy from jaundice, the most likely cause is poor patient monitoring on part of the attending physician. Doctors must be vigilant for the signs of hyperbilirubinemia in newborns and take steps to reduce their bilirubin levels quickly, safely, and effectively.