Jaundice, also called icterus, is yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. It’s a very common condition in newborns. Jaundice usually gets better by itself and disappears in a few days.
A substance called bilirubin can build up in the blood. Bilirubin forms when red blood cells break down. The body usually gets rid of bilirubin through the liver. Because the liver in newborns is immature, sometimes bilirubin builds up faster than the body can get rid of it. Jaundice is the result. Very high levels of bilirubin can hurt the baby’s nervous system. This condition is called kernicterus. Premature babies are more likely to get jaundice than are full-term babies.
Other causes include infection, a blood type conflict between mother and baby, and breast milk. Sometimes, breast milk interferes with the ability of a baby’s liver to process bilirubin. This type of jaundice develops later than the others and can last for several weeks.
The most common symptom is yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Other symptoms, with very high bilirubin levels, are being drowsy and not eating well.
The health care provider will do a simple blood test to check the bilirubin level.
Many babies don’t need treatment.
When treatment is needed, the best is phototherapy. The baby lies naked under fluorescent lights. The baby has eye patches to protect the eyes during the treatment. The lights help break down excess bilirubin so it can be removed more easily. An “ultraviolet blanket” can also be used. Bilirubin blood levels are checked regularly. Phototherapy usually lowers bilirubin levels in 2 days. Sometimes, the bilirubin level goes up after phototherapy, but only temporarily. The yellow color may last for a few days or even a week or two, even with low bilirubin blood levels.
In rare cases of extremely high bilirubin levels that can’t be lowered by phototherapy, exchange transfusion may be done. This treatment involves removing blood with high levels of bilirubin and replacing it with different blood.
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