Jaundice, which is primarily associated with yellowing of the skin and eyes, can be indicative of an underlying issue with the liver or red blood cells. It is a common condition among newborns and if not properly managed, high levels of bilirubin can also cause brain damage, also called kernicterus. Speaking with the OnlyMyHealth team, Dr Amrit Tuteja, Associate Consultant-Neonatology, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Patparganj, discusses the risk of neonatal jaundice and the signs to watch out for.
Jaundice refers to the yellowing of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, which occurs when there is an excessive buildup of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during the breakdown of red blood cells, in the body. It can be a symptom of an underlying liver disease or other medical conditions affecting the normal processing and elimination of bilirubin.
Neonatal jaundice refers to the occurrence of jaundice in newborn babies. It typically appears within the first few days after birth and poses high risk during the first week of life, said Dr Tuteja. It usually occurs due to the temporary inability of a newborn's liver to efficiently process and eliminate bilirubin, resulting in a yellowing of the skin and eyes. "Baby should be monitored in the hospital for jaundice by the doctor until at least 48 hrs of life," the doctor added. In most cases, neonatal jaundice resolves on its own as the baby's liver matures, but in some instances, medical intervention may be necessary to prevent complications.
Britain’s National Health Services (NHS) suggests that an estimated 6 out of every 10 babies develop jaundice, including 8 out of 10 babies born prematurely before the 37th week of pregnancy. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine, almost 60% of term neonates and almost 80% of preterm neonates develop jaundice.
Symptoms To Watch Out For
A baby suffering from jaundice will develop a range of symptoms. Yellowing of the skin is the most visible sign of jaundice, which can appear in the following parts of the body:
- In the whites of their eyes
- Inside their mouth
- On the soles of their feet
- On the palms of their hands
- On the head and face
Other symptoms include:
- Increased sleepiness
- Dark yellow urine
- Pale stool
As per Dr Tuteja, anytime the soles of the newborn are yellow, it is advisable to visit the doctor for a jaundice check. Furthermore, if jaundice value becomes very high, more than 25 mg/dl, bilirubin pigment can reach the brain and deposit there, causing harm to the area where it gets deposited, he said.
When To Seek Emergency Help
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is best to get emergency medical help if your baby:
- Is crying inconsolably or with a high pitch
- Is arched like a bow (the head or neck and heels are bent backward and the body forward)
- Has a stiff, limp, or floppy body
- Has strange eye movements
“Adequate feeding is the only possible way to prevent jaundice,” said Dr Tuteja, adding that for other reasons like blood group difference between mother and baby or blood collection under scalp (cephalohematoma), nothing preventable can be done.
Treatment includes phototherapy (blue light), which is an easy and a safe treatment for jaundice. The CDC says that the lights will not hurt the baby. If jaundice is very high, blood needs to be changed. The process is also called exchange transfusion, according to the doctor.
Some people believe putting the baby in sunlight is a natural remedy for treating jaundice in newborns, however, the CDC does not recommend it as a safe way of treating jaundice.