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Kernicterus - Topic Overview

How is kernicterus diagnosed?

Your doctor diagnoses kernicterus through a physical exam and knowledge of your child's history of symptoms. Blood tests to measure your baby's bilirubin levels are also done.

Once a baby has kernicterus, brain damage has already occurred. For this reason, it is important to follow and treat jaundice before bilirubin levels get too high.

Can kernicterus be prevented?

You may be able to help prevent kernicterus by being aware of the symptoms of jaundice and making sure your baby gets testing and treatment when needed.

  • If your baby is still in the hospital and has signs of jaundice, your doctor or nurse may do a transcutaneous bilirubin test. He or she will place a small device gently against your baby's skin to check the bilirubin level. A blood test can also check your baby's bilirubin level. A baby with a bilirubin level that requires treatment will have light therapy (phototherapy). This is usually given in the hospital. In very mild cases, you may treat your baby at home using lights the doctor gives you. Do not be alarmed if your baby has to have phototherapy; it does not mean that he or she is in danger of having brain damage. Doctors use this therapy to help prevent bilirubin from getting to a dangerous level.
  • Feed your baby at least every 2 to 3 hours during the first week or two. This helps keep bilirubin moving out of the body through urine and stool.
  • Set up a well-baby check-up before you leave the hospital. Jaundice is usually at its worst around day 5, so have the visit within the first 5 days after your child's birth. The doctor will check your baby for jaundice that is of any concern.
  • Call your doctor if you think that your baby's skin on the tummy, arms, or legs is getting yellow or that yellowing on the face is getting worse. Also look for yellowing in the whites of your baby's eyes. Get medical help right away if your baby is jaundiced and is hard to wake, acts very fussy, or is not feeding well.
  • Talk to your doctor about what makes your baby more likely to get kernicterus, such as:
    • Being born early (more than 2 weeks before the due date).
    • Having jaundice in the first 24 hours after birth.
    • Having problems with breast-feeding.
    • Having bruises or bleeding on the head from a difficult birth.
    • Having an older brother or sister who received light therapy for jaundice.

How is it treated?

Quick treatment may help prevent further brain damage. Treatment may start with light therapy and fluids given through a needle into a vein (intravenous fluid replacement). Sometimes a baby may also have a tube placed down his or her throat or into the stomach for feeding with a special type of formula. A baby will also have a blood type test so that he or she can quickly get a blood transfusion if it is needed. A blood transfusion may be given to help remove extra bilirubin from the baby's blood.

Long-term treatment for brain damage will depend on a child's specific problems. Typical treatment includes physical therapy, speech therapy, and special education.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: May 11, 2012
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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