You may be aware that excessive alcohol use can result in jaundice in adults, but unless you saw it in your own baby, you probably do not know that this condition can also affect newborns. In fact, 60% of newborns in the U.S. develop jaundice in the first few days after birth. While jaundice is not a critical condition on its own, there are potential complications that can cause life-changing disabilities to the newborn if a doctor does not take them seriously.
What Is Jaundice?
Jaundice is a condition where a person has a high concentration of bilirubin in their blood, which causes them to develop a yellow tint to their skin. Bilirubin is a yellow pigmentation that forms naturally when red blood cells break down. Normally, a person’s liver will process bilirubin and remove it from the body.
When babies are in the womb, their mother’s liver will filter bilirubin for them. After birth, newborns may have high bilirubin levels as their livers begin to process the substance and remove it from their blood. Newborns may have high bilirubin levels for two to four days after birth, resulting in jaundice.
On its own, jaundice is not a danger to a newborn and may only be temporary. However, high bilirubin levels may be a sign of liver failure, which why many alcoholics develop jaundice after time. With newborns, this condition should be watched closely, as too much bilirubin for too long can damage the brain.
What Is Kernicterus?
Jaundice can be a warning sign for kernicterus, a type of brain damage that occurs due to high bilirubin levels. If the liver does not naturally break down bilirubin and remove it from the blood, high concentrations of it can spread throughout the body and permanently damage the brain. Kernicterus can lead to several conditions, including:
- Athetoid cerebral palsy
- Hearing damage
- Permanent upward gaze
- Cognitive and intellectual disabilities
- Damage to the teeth and enamel
Most forms of jaundice do not end in brain damage, but it is important for doctors to monitor newborns to ensure that jaundice does not become kernicterus. The long-term consequences can affect a child for the rest of his or her life, and doctors who allow such a birth injury to develop should be held accountable.
How Should Doctors Respond to Jaundice and Prevent Kernicterus?
If your child develops a yellow pigmentation due to jaundice, you should schedule an appointment with the doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor should carefully review the symptoms and order tests to ensure that your child’s bilirubin levels are manageable and liver is functioning properly. If your child shows any signs of developing kernicterus, the doctor should act fast to diagnose and treat it.
Warning signs in a newborn include:
- Yellow or orange skin tone
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Difficulties waking up
- Refusing to breastfeed or suck from a bottle
- Acting fussy and excessive crying
- Arched back or neck
- Either limp “ragdoll” or stiff body
- Unusual eye movements
Doctors and nurses should check for jaundice every eight to 12 hours in the first two days after birth. Bilirubin levels often rise between the third and seventh day, and you should schedule an appointment during this period to have your baby checked by a doctor. The doctor can check your baby’s bilirubin levels with a light meter without having to perform a blood or liver enzyme test, but these tests may be necessary to ensure that bilirubin levels are dropping.
Jaundice can and should be treated as soon as possible to prevent kernicterus. Doctors can use specialized lights called bili lights to help break down the bilirubin. They may also recommend increasing your child’s milk intake, which will allow his or her body to process the bilirubin at a higher rate. In extreme cases, jaundice can be treated with a blood transfusion.
How Does Medical Negligence Cause Kernicterus?
Treating jaundice is the same as treating kernicterus. If a doctor acts quickly enough, then a newborn will not develop kernicterus. However, if a doctor fails to diagnose jaundice, delays in providing treatment, or performs the treatment incorrectly, he can be found liable in a medical malpractice claim for causing your child to suffer brain damage.
If your newborn developed a birth injury as a result of medical negligence, you should speak to a New York birth injury lawyer as soon as possible At Wingate, Russotti, Shapiro & Halperin, LLP, we have more than 50 years of experience fighting for children who were injured by negligent doctors, nurses, and hospital staff. We can investigate the cause of your child’s injuries, determine who is responsible, and fight to get you full compensation for your child’s medical care and future treatment.
No one should suffer through a preventable injury because of a negligent doctor. To get a free case evaluation and to learn how we can fight for your family, call us at (212) 986-7353.