The American Academy of Pediatrics describes kernicterus as “a rare neurological condition that occurs in some newborns with severe jaundice.”
Jaundice results from a buildup of yellow pigment produced as red cells recycle in the blood. The pigment is called bilirubin.
Low levels of bilirubin can appear two to four days after birth. Usually it is not harmful and disappears without treatment within 1 to 2 weeks. However, high levels can be dangerous as it can collect in the brain tissue and cause brain damage.
When this happens, the condition is called kernicterus.
Monitoring Your Baby for Signs of Kernicterus
You may begin to see signs of kernicterus in your child after their third week of life. The symptoms depend on the stage of kernicterus.
You and your medical providers should monitor warning signs, which include:
- Early Stage
- Absent startle reflex
- Extreme jaundice
- Extreme sleepiness
- Poor feeding or sucking
- Mid Stage
- Arched back and neck
- Bulging fontanel (soft gaps in the skull that allow for growth and normally seal after a few months)
- High-pitched cry
- Late Stage
- High-frequency hearing loss
- Mental retardation
- Movement disorders
- Muscle rigidity
- Speech difficulties
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants with signs of jaundice have their bilirubin level measured within 24 hours. If the level is high, the infant should be screened for diseases that destroy red blood cells.
The association also recommends that all newborns have a follow-up appointment within 2 to 3 days after leaving the hospital. This is particularly important for premature or near-term babies.