Over 60% of newborn infants (neonates) are jaundiced in the first week or two of life. Jaundice is yellow coloring of the skin and other tissues caused by an excess of the pigment bilirubin. Although many babies are jaundiced, most are not deeply jaundiced, not below their abdomen, and they act normal - they nurse; they are not too sleepy; they have normal muscle tone; their cry is normal, and they don't arch their backs. Most neonatal jaundice is not harmful, but when it progresses and causes abnormal brain function, it is a medical emergency!
Kernicterus is brain damage that occurs when the substance which causes jaundice, bilirubin, is so high it moves out of the blood into brain tissue. When babies begin to be affected by bilirubin they become excessively lethargic (too sleepy) and difficult to arouse. They may not nurse. They may then go on to have a shrill, high-pitched cry and abnormal muscle tone, at times low (hypotonic or floppy) and sometimes high (hypertonic) with arching of the head and neck. As bilirubin damage continues, they may develop fever and arch their head and neck backwards into a contorted position known as opisthotonus or retrocollis.
The goals of website are to help parents and providers understand jaundice, bilirubin, hyperbilirubinemia, and kernicterus and to answer the following questions:
1. My newborn baby is jaundiced. Why, and what should I do? See NEWBORN JAUNDICE below.
2. What is kernicterus and does my child have it? See KERNICTERUS below.
3. Is there research to prevent, treat or cure kernicterus? See RESEARCH & RESOURCES.
4. Where can I learn more or take my child to be evaluated? See RESEARCH & RESOURCES.
Jaundice is a yellow color of skin and tissues caused by bilirubin, a normal breakdown product of red blood cell hemoglobin.
Hyperbilirubinemia is high (hyper-) level of bilirubin in blood (-emia).
Kernicterus is brain damage caused by excessive newborn jaundice.