If you have been around babies and new mothers in the past, you probably have heard of infant jaundice or even seen a baby with a pronounced yellow tint to his or her skin and eyes. While rarely serious, most cases require a doctor's evaluation to determine whether treatment is needed, so it is a good idea to be familiar with the symptoms and treatments of infant jaundice. Fortunately, infant jaundice usually resolves on its own after a few days and the yellow skin and eyes gradually fade.
Infant jaundice is the result of a high level of bilirubin in a baby's blood. This yellow substance forms when the body replaces old red blood cells. Normally, bilirubin is broken down by the liver and passed out of the body in bowel movements. When this bilirubin builds up in the body, there is a noticeable yellow tint to the skin and eyes.
Many healthy babies have elevated bilirubin levels at birth since the baby's liver doesn't begin functioning until after delivery. Other causes of infant jaundice include infections present at birth, difficulty breastfeeding, a low oxygen level and diseases that affect the liver and biliary tract, such as hepatitis and cystic fibrosis.
The primary indicator of infant jaundice is a yellowish tint to the skin and yellow-colored sclera, the part of the eye that is usually white. The yellow skin usually starts at the face and works downward to the soles of the feet. Babies with infant jaundice may also be irritable and have difficulty falling and staying asleep.
Any infant that appears to have jaundice needs to have his or her bilirubin levels checked right away. The staff will monitor this until the infant leaves the hospital, but parents should be alert for yellowing of the skin and eyes once the baby comes home. Tests for bilirubin levels include a complete blood scan, a Coombs test, and a reticulocyte count.
Treatment for infant jaundice is usually not necessary. In determining whether treatment is needed, the doctor will look at the baby's bilirubin level, how fast the level is rising, the baby's age, and whether he or she was born early. With or without treatment, a baby with jaundice needs plenty of fluids in the form of formula or mother's milk.
Phototherapy, also called light therapy, is one common treatment for infant jaundice. In this treatment, the medical practitioner places the baby under special blue lights that help reduce the body's bilirubin level. For home treatment, you can rent a special bed equipped with built-in jaundice lights or use a special fiber-optic blanket.
In severe cases of infant jaundice, the baby's blood may need to be completely replaced with fresh blood via IV blood infusions. Sometimes, IV-administered immunoglobulin can effectively lower a baby's bilirubin level. After the blood infusion, the baby is monitored for a day or two and then sent home.
A doctor's visit is generally a good idea when you notice a baby has jaundice, to rule out any situations that might cause complications. However, most cases of infant jaundice resolve within a few days, with no lasting effects. Jaundice becomes an emergency situation if it is accompanied by fever, listlessness, or disinterest in or poor nursing.
Complications of severe, untreated high levels of bilirubin (and accompanying jaundice) can include cerebral palsy, deafness and kernicterus (brain damage from exceedingly high bilirubin levels.) However, these complications are very rare and only make up a small fraction of the number of babies who develop infant jaundice each year.
While some degree of infant jaundice is normal because the baby's liver does not begin to function until after delivery, parents can help prevent severe cases of infant jaundice by feeding their new baby at least 8 to 12 times a day for the first few days. Also, all pregnant women should be checked for unusual antibodies as these can sometimes promote infant jaundice in the baby.
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