K: What Is Kernicterus

22/01/2010 17:48 | Updated 22 May 2015

Kernicterus is a form of brain damage that is caused by an excessive amount of jaundice in a newborn. It can cause both cerebral palsy and hearing loss, as well as problems with vision and learning difficulties.

Jaundice is caused by bilirubin, a yellow pigment made by the liver, entering the bloodstream. This can turn the skin and whites of the eyes a yellow colour. It is a common condition and many babies develop jaundice, which normally goes away by itself.

However, if a baby has an excessive amount of jaundice that remains untreated, the bilirubin can travel to the brain, which is the cause of kernicterus.

There are warning signs that kernicterus is developing. These include a very orange skin colour; extreme sleepiness to the point where it is difficult to wake the baby; high pitched crying; a floppy body; an inability to feed; and an arched back.

If excessive jaundice is suspected it must be treated as a medical emergency to prevent the onset of kernicterus. This can be successfully treated with phototherapy, which involves putting the baby under blue lights. This light therapy breaks the excess bilirubin down into a non-toxic, water soluble substance that can be removed by the body.

In more extreme case, doctors will perform an 'exchange transfusion', which is a faster way of removing the toxic bilirubin from the blood.

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