Kernicterus

What is kernicterus?

Kernicterus is a birth injury caused by excessive bilirubin in the blood around a baby’s brain. It is a condition related to jaundice, and signs of its development are easily detected by competent, prepared medical staff. When a physician doesn’t properly monitor or treat high levels of bilirubin, the baby can suffer from severe brain damage, seizures, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and even death.

Treatment for kernicterus

A baby receives phototherapy to treat jaundice caused by excessive bilirubin. Too much bilirubin in babies can lead to kernicterus and severe brain damage.

How does kernicterus develop?

When red blood cells break down in our bodies, they release something called bilirubin. It’s a normal byproduct of the body’s processes, and many babies produce a lot of it shortly after birth because they go through a period of rapid red blood cell breakdown. Bilirubin has a yellow pigment, so when it builds up, the skin may appear yellowish. This is known as jaundice and is common among newborns.

But some babies—especially premature ones with fragile, underdeveloped systems—build up dangerously high levels of bilirubin in their blood. Known as hyperbilirubinemia, this condition is easily diagnosed and treated.

If a physician fails to treat hyperbilirubinemia, serious brain damage may occur. Bilirubin can build up so much in the baby’s head that it begins seeping into the brain tissue, where it is toxic. This condition is called kernicterus. The damage can lead to a variety of neurological disorders, including cerebral palsy, visual problems, and cognitive disabilities.

What are the symptoms of kernicterus, and are there treatments available?

Since bilirubin has a yellow pigment, detecting high levels of it can be a simple as monitoring the newborn for skin discoloration. Jaundice usually appears first on the face and then moves to other parts of the body.

There are other easily detectable symptoms, including:

  • Absent startle reflex
  • Poor feeding or sucking
  • Extreme sleepiness (lethargy) and low muscle tone (hypotonia)
  • High-pitched crying
  • Seizures (these may signal a severe case of kernicterus, so immediate action should be taken)

To better understand a baby’s condition, bilirubin levels can be measured with a simple blood test. A physician may also test a baby’s red blood cell count and compare its blood type to the mother’s to identify any underlying conditions.

Babies suffering from hyperbilirubinemia are typically treated with phototherapy, where they are placed under special lights or wrapped in a fiber-optic phototherapy blanket to decrease bilirubin levels. Medical staff may also choose to perform a blood exchange or transfusion to lower bilirubin levels. 

Is kernicterus preventable?

Early signs of high bilirubin levels are very easy to identify, and medical professionals should be trained to act when symptoms present themselves. Kernicterus is preventable with proper monitoring and treatment.

When a doctor or hospital fails to treat dangerously high bilirubin levels, kernicterus may cause severe, permanent brain damage in the baby. In extreme cases of kernicterus, the baby may die from the condition. Medical professionals may be found negligent if they:

  • Fail to examine the baby for kernicterus
  • Postpone or improperly carry out treatment, including phototherapy and transfusions
  • Allow bilirubin levels to reach dangerous levels
  • Fail to have policies in place to measure bilirubin levels, particularly in high-risk infants

If a child develops cerebral palsy, visual or hearing problems, intellectual disabilities, or motor difficulties, it may be a result of negligence on behalf of the medical staff in treating kernicterus at birth.

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Dr. Jack Tolliver is a successful physician and medical malpractice lawyer who understands the complexities of both hospitals and courtrooms.

If you know a child who may have suffered from complications due to kernicterus, encourage you to contact our firm and learn more. With our team’s medical experience, we can thoroughly and quickly review your case at no charge. If we accept your case, we will pursue maximum compensation. We never pass on costs and expenses if we do not recover damages.

Photo credit: Mark Evans, Flickr

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