Kernicterus Symptoms

Quick Answer

Kernicterus is a rare type of brain damage that can occur in newborns with severe jaundice that is left untreated. Early kernicterus symptoms include feeding problems and irritability. Children with late-stage kernicterus may not feed at all or have seizures. Untreated jaundice that leads to kernicterus may be considered medical negligence. Learn more about kernicterus signs and symptoms.

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What Are the Symptoms of Kernicterus?

The symptoms of newborn kernicterus are varied and differ depending on whether the condition is in early or later stages.

Here are the most common symptoms of kernicterus in newborns.

1. Newborn Jaundice

The first kernicterus sign is newborn jaundice, which occurs when a baby has high levels of bilirubin (a yellowish pigment created when the liver processes red blood cells) in their blood.

Babies with jaundice (hyperbilirubinemia) have a yellowish tint to their skin and the whites of the eyes.

When doctors fail to identify and treat jaundice on time, the high bilirubin levels can affect the baby’s brain tissue and cause jaundice brain damage symptoms. This can be considered medical negligence.

2. Lack of Energy (Lethargy)

Babies with kernicterus are often tired and listless. They may cry and move less than babies without the condition.

3. Fever

Babies with kernicterus may be feverish. Fever usually occurs with other symptoms, especially muscle spasms, vomiting, and lethargy.

4. Vomiting

Infants with kernicterus are prone to vomiting. This can affect their ability to feed and suck. Most babies with kernicterus have a lack of interest in feeding.

5. Muscle Spasms

Babies with newborn kernicterus often experience muscle spasms. These spasms can cause arching of the neck and back.

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Symptoms of Kernicterus by Stage

Kernicterus symptoms vary depending on the stage of the health condition.

The chart below shows the different symptoms of kernicterus for each of the three stages.

Early StageLow muscle tone (hypotonia), difficulty suckling and feeding,
no startle reflex (response to loud sounds)
First few days after birth
Middle StageTense muscles, a high-pitched cry, and irritabilityAs the baby continues to grow
Late StageStiff muscles and muscle spasms, not feeding, and seizuresInfants older than 1 week

Other symptoms of kernicterus include unusual eye movements and a floppy body.

Babies with untreated late-stage kernicterus may experience a kernicterus-related syndrome or mental retardation by the time they turn 3 or 4, according to the National Organization for Rare Diseases.

Are Kernicterus Symptoms the Same as Jaundice Symptoms?

Jaundice and early-stage kernicterus have similar symptoms since kernicterus is caused by untreated jaundice.

However, late-stage kernicterus symptoms, such as seizures and muscle spasms, are distinct from jaundice symptoms.

Late-stage kernicterus can be fatal, or lead to permanent brain damage, trouble speaking, and other health problems in a baby.

If your child has symptoms of jaundice or kernicterus, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Risk Factors & Causes of Kernicterus Symptoms

Several risk factors increase the chances of a child developing kernicterus symptoms.

Conditions that can cause kernicterus include:

  • Newborn jaundice: Infants with newborn jaundice may develop kernicterus if they are not diagnosed and treated in time.
  • Blood type: Mothers having an O blood type or Rh negative blood factor have a greater chance of having babies with higher bilirubin levels.
  • Darker skin color: Doctors may have a harder time identifying newborn jaundice in babies with darker skin tones.
  • Family history of newborn jaundice: Babies born to families with a history of newborn jaundice are more likely to develop kernicterus.
  • Prematurity: Premature babies are more likely to develop kernicterus because their livers aren’t fully developed, which reduces their ability to get rid of bilirubin.
  • Poor feeding: Infants who don’t eat well may not poop enough to get rid of bilirubin.
  • Related rare diseases and conditions: Sometimes, kernicterus may be caused by rare disorders, such as Crigler-Najjar syndrome type I and Gilbert syndrome. A family history of conditions such as G6PD deficiency also increases the likelihood of having children with kernicterus.

Kernicterus Diagnosis & Treatment

Discovering that a baby has symptoms of kernicterus can be distressing. However, many babies with kernicterus make a full recovery with prompt and proper treatment.

That said, if you suspect that your baby has kernicterus, get medical help immediately.

Here are the basic steps involved in diagnosing and treating kernicterus symptoms.

1. Doctor’s Visit

A pediatrician will ask you about your baby’s symptoms, examine your child for signs of kernicterus, and order a series of tests to make a diagnosis.

2. Bilirubin Test

These tests are often used to determine whether a baby has kernicterus:

  • A bilirubin blood test measures the bilirubin level in your baby’s blood.
  • A light meter test shines a light on your baby’s skin. It calculates a transcutaneous bilirubin (within the skin) level based on how the light absorbs or reflects off the skin.

Babies with a kernicterus bilirubin level higher than 25 milligrams must be treated for kernicterus in the hospital and monitored until their levels are normal.

3. Kernicterus Treatment

Methods used to treat kernicterus symptoms include:

  • Light therapy (phototherapy): This therapy uses blue ultraviolet light to get rid of the bilirubin in a baby’s body. To perform phototherapy, the physician shines ultraviolet lights on the child’s skin while they rest in a bed with a protective eye covering.
  • Intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIG): The health care provider may prescribe IVIG if the newborn baby has Rh disease (a type of anemia). IVIG is an antibody therapy treatment that is received through a vein drip.
  • Exchange transfusions: A blood transfusion reduces bilirubin levels by replacing a newborn’s blood with donor blood and plasma. A medical professional will place a small tube into a vein in the child’s arm or umbilical stump (a piece of umbilical cord left on the body).

Dangers of Untreated Kernicterus Symptoms in Newborn

Kernicterus and neonatal jaundice can be life-threatening. The buildup of excess bilirubin can lead to brain damage, causing life-long disabilities and neurological problems.

Consequences of untreated kernicterus include:

  • Acute bilirubin encephalopathy (brain damage that can lead to cerebral palsy and other health problems)
  • Coma
  • Developmental delays
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Hearing loss
  • Death

When a baby develops kernicterus due to a health care professional’s failure to diagnose or treat jaundice, the family may have legal options. Birth injury law firms help families file birth injury lawsuits and pursue compensation and justice on behalf of their injured child.

Get Help for a Kernicterus Diagnosis

Health care providers have a duty to recognize signs of health conditions like kernicterus and administer treatment in a timely manner. When they fail to do so, it may be considered medical malpractice.

Kernicterus is a serious condition that can lead to long-term effects, and in rare cases, it can be fatal.

When medical malpractice is involved, families may be eligible for financial compensation to help pay for medical care and other expenses.

The Birth Injury Justice Center partners with top birth injury law firms that can help you pursue compensation through a birth injury lawsuit.

Call (800) 914-1562 or fill out our form for a free case review.

Kernicterus in Newborn Symptoms FAQs

What is kernicterus in newborn babies?

Kernicterus in a newborn is a type of brain damage that can occur when the infant has high levels of a waste product called bilirubin in their blood. The levels of bilirubin are so high that they migrate from the bloodstream to the brain tissue.

When the condition is not detected and treated in time, the baby can develop various kernicterus complications. These include cerebral palsy, hearing loss, and intellectual disabilities.

How do I know if my baby has kernicterus?

A doctor can confirm whether a baby has kernicterus by ordering certain tests that measure the amount of bilirubin (a yellow waste product) in the blood or within the skin.

Early symptoms of kernicterus include low muscle tone, no startle reflex, and difficulty feeding. These tend to show up in the first few days of life.

If your child shows these or other symptoms of kernicterus, you should get them medical help immediately.

How quickly does kernicterus develop?

The first signs of kernicterus may develop the first few days after birth. These early-stage symptoms include low muscle tone, difficulty feeding, and no startle reflex (response to loud sounds).

How are kernicterus brain damage symptoms treated?

Doctors typically treat kernicterus with light therapy (exposing the baby to light to improve their bilirubin levels). In more severe cases, a baby may need a blood transfusion.

Can kernicterus be reversed?

When a baby is diagnosed quickly and gets prompt treatment, it’s possible for them to make a full recovery. Each child’s individual kernicterus prognosis depends on the stage of the condition at the time of diagnosis and the underlying cause.

Birth Injury Support Team
Reviewed by:Beth Carter, RN

Registered Nurse, Legal Nurse Consultant Certified

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Beth Carter has over 18 years of experience as a Registered Nurse. She spent nearly half of that time working in labor and delivery units. This, combined with her own experience giving birth to a premature baby, ignite Beth’s passion for helping new mothers access the information and resources they deserve.

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

View Sources
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  5. National Organization for Rare Diseases (2008, February 5). Kernicterus. Retrieved July 27, 2023, from
  6. NHS. (2022, February 3). Kernicterus. Retrieved July 21, 2023, from