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Jaundice in Newborns (Hyperbilirubinemia) - Topic Overview

What is jaundice in newborns?

Jaundice is a yellow tint to a newborn's skin and the white part of the eyes. It is a sign that there's too much bilirubin in the baby's blood. The word for having too much bilirubin in the blood is hyperbilirubinemia (say "hy-per-bil-ih-roo-bih-NEE-mee-uh").

Jaundice usually appears in the first 5 days of life. Many babies have left the hospital by the time jaundice starts. So your doctor may want to do a follow-up exam when your baby is 3 to 5 days old.

Most babies have mild jaundice. It usually gets better or goes away on its own within a week or two without causing problems. But jaundice should be taken seriously. In rare cases, if the bilirubin level stays high and isn't treated, it can cause brain damage called kernicterus. This can lead to serious lifelong problems.

What causes jaundice in newborns?

Jaundice occurs because your baby's body has more bilirubin than it can get rid of. Bilirubin is a yellow substance that's made when the body breaks down old red blood cells. It leaves the body through urine and stool. When you're pregnant, your body removes bilirubin from your baby through the placenta. After birth, your baby's body must get rid of the bilirubin on its own.

In most cases, babies have what's called physiologic jaundice. It occurs because their organs aren't yet able to get rid of excess bilirubin very well. This type of jaundice usually appears about 24 hours after birth. It gets worse until the third or fourth day, and then it goes away in about a week.

In rare cases, jaundice may be caused by other things, such as an infection, a problem with the baby's digestive system, or a problem with the mom's and baby's blood types (Rh incompatibility). Your baby may have one of these problems if jaundice appears less than a day after birth.

What are the symptoms?

If a newborn has jaundice, his or her skin and the white part of the eyes will look yellow. The yellow color shows up first in the baby's face and chest, usually 1 to 5 days after birth.

A baby whose bilirubin level is high may:

  • Get more yellow.
  • Be sluggish and not suck well.
  • Be cranky or jittery.
  • Arch his or her back.
  • Have a high-pitched cry.

A high bilirubin level can be dangerous. Make sure to call a doctor right away if your baby has any of these symptoms.

How is jaundice in newborns diagnosed?

Your baby's doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your health and your baby's health. For example, the doctor might ask if you and your baby have different blood types.

The doctor may place a device against your baby's skin to check your baby's bilirubin level. A blood test for bilirubin may be done to find out if your baby needs treatment.

More tests may be needed if the doctor thinks that a health problem is causing too much bilirubin in the blood.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 19, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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