Kernicterus and hyperbilirubinemia are not common terms that many parents are familiar with. Sadly, some parents will learn what these terms mean if their newborn is diagnosed with jaundice at birth. While most cases of jaundice resolve themselves during the first week of life, some cases may become life-threatening.
What Causes Hyperbilirubinemia?
Hyperbilirubinemia, commonly referred to as jaundice, causes a newborn’s skin to have a yellowish tone. In addition, the whites of the newborn’s eyes may also appear yellow. Hyperbilirubinemia is caused by having too much bilirubin in the blood.
Bilirubin is a chemical in hemoglobin, the part of a red blood cell that carries oxygen. As red cells break down, they are processed by the liver.
Sometimes, the liver cannot process all red blood cells that break down. The result is a buildup of bilirubin in the system, which causes the yellowish appearance of the skin and eyes.
Before birth, bilirubin in the baby’s systems is removed by the mother’s liver. However, after birth, the baby’s liver must process and remove bilirubin from the baby’s system. When the baby’s liver is underdeveloped, it may not remove bilirubin efficiently.
Symptoms of Hyperbilirubinemia or Jaundice
Signs and symptoms of jaundice in newborns include:
- The baby’s skin tone becomes yellow or orange, beginning at the head and moving to the toes
- The baby may be overly fussy and may not sleep well
- A baby may be hard to wake up
- The baby has problems sucking a bottle or breastfeeding
- There are not enough wet or dirty diapers throughout the day (4 to 6 wet diapers in 24 hours and 3 to 4 stools per day by the fourth day)
Babies who scream or cry in a high pitch and are inconsolable need emergency medical care. Other symptoms that require emergency medical care include arching the back like a bow, having strange eye movements, or having a stiff, floppy, or limp body.
Roughly 60 percent of babies have jaundice. Risk factors for jaundice include:
- Preterm infants
- Babies with darker skin tones (could make it more difficult to detect signs of hyperbilirubinemia)
- Feed difficulties
- Siblings who had jaundice
- Blood type (mothers with O blood type or Rh-negative blood factors)
- Bruising at birth
During the first two days of life, babies should be checked for jaundice every eight to 12 hours. Because bilirubin levels are highest during the third to the fifth day of life, the baby needs to see a medical professional to be evaluated for hyperbilirubinemia.
Treatments for Hyperbilirubinemia
A light meter placed on the baby’s head indicates the baby’s transcutaneous bilirubin level. If the level is high, a blood test is ordered. The treatment for jaundice includes placing the baby under special lights. The doctor may also recommend increasing the baby’s milk intake.
Serious cases of hyperbilirubinemia may be treated with a blood exchange transfusion. Prompt diagnosis of hyperbilirubinemia and treatment can prevent brain damage or other permanent injuries to the baby. However, when hyperbilirubinemia is not treated quickly, the baby could develop a serious condition called kernicterus.
What is Kernicterus?
Bilirubin encephalopathy or kernicterus is a neurological condition that can occur when a newborn experiences severe jaundice (hyperbilirubinemia). When jaundice goes untreated, bilirubin can move from the blood into the brain tissue, causing irreversible brain damage.
Severe cases of kernicterus can lead to a wrongful death. Diagnosing and treating jaundice can prevent a baby from developing kernicterus.
Kernicterus and Hyperbilirubinemia Caused by Medical Malpractice
Medical providers should test and retest newborns for jaundice. In addition, physicians should increase efforts to detect jaundice when the mother or infant has risk factors that could increase the chance of developing hyperbilirubinemia.
If a doctor, nurse, or hospital fails to detect jaundice, the baby could develop kernicterus. At that point, the baby could sustain permanent and irreversible harm. Sadly, jaundice is generally easy to detect and treat with proper care.
If your baby developed kernicterus or hyperbilirubinemia, you and your child could be entitled to compensation for damages. Damages could include, but are not limited to:
- Your baby’s medical expenses
- Ongoing personal care and nursing care in a facility or at home
- Special education services
- Rehabilitative care and therapies
- Pain and suffering (non-economic damages)
- Loss of earning potential
- Reduced quality of life
Proving medical negligence contributed to the cause of a birth injury can be a complex process. You have the burden of proving that the doctor or other medical provider breached the duty of care by failing to provide the required standard of care. A Miami medical malpractice attorney can help.
An experienced medical malpractice lawyer understands the legal requirements for proving medical negligence. There are deadlines for filing claims related to hyperbilirubinemia and kernicterus. Seeking legal advice now is essential to avoid losing your right to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.