Kernicterus in infants: All you need to know

Medically Reviewed by Checkmark Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Sravanthi Sunkaraneni
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Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Kernicterus is a rare but serious neurological disorder that occurs as a result of severe hyperbilirubinemia, which is a high level of bilirubin in the blood. When red blood cells break down, they produce a yellowish substance called bilirubin. The liver normally processes and excretes it. In the case of infants, kernicterus can occur as the liver may not fully develop, and the bilirubin may accumulate in the blood. This can lead to hyperbilirubinemia. When the bilirubin levels become too high, it can cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain. This can result in damage to the brain cells. This can lead to a range of neurological symptoms, including hearing loss, movement disorders, and cognitive impairment. In severe cases, it can even result in death.

What are the signs and symptoms of kernicterus?

The signs and symptoms of kernicterus typically appear within the first week of life. As the condition progresses, the infant may develop a high-pitched cry, a stiff body, and seizures.

The brain damage as a result of high levels of bilirubin can result in a range of neurological symptoms, including:

  1. Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  2. Poor feeding
  3. Lethargy
  4. High-pitched crying
  5. Fever

As the condition progresses, the following symptoms may also appear:

  1. Muscle stiffness or rigidity (hypertonia)
  2. Uncontrolled, involuntary movements (athetosis)
  3. Poor muscle coordination (ataxia)
  4. Hearing loss
  5. Cognitive impairment, including difficulty with learning, memory, and attention
  6. Seizures

It is important to note that not all newborn babies with jaundice will develop kernicterus, and not all cases of kernicterus will present with the same symptoms.

How is kernicterus treated in newborn babies?

Treatment of kernicterus in infants involves managing the underlying hyperbilirubinemia that caused the condition. The goal of treatment is to reduce the bilirubin level in the blood to prevent further damage to the brain cells.

Kernicterus treatment

The treatment of kernicterus may include:

  1. Phototherapy: Phototherapy involves placing the baby under special lights that break down bilirubin. The baby may need to wear eye protection, and the bilirubin levels will be monitored regularly to ensure they are decreasing.
  2. Exchange transfusion: In severe cases, exchange transfusion may be necessary. This involves removing a small amount of the baby’s blood and replacing it with donor blood. This helps to reduce the bilirubin level rapidly.
  3. Monitoring: Regular monitoring of the baby’s bilirubin levels is essential. If the bilirubin level is still high after phototherapy or exchange transfusion, the baby may need additional treatment.
  4. Supportive care: Babies with kernicterus may need additional supportive care, such as hydration, nutrition, and management of any seizures or other complications.

It is essential to seek medical attention immediately if you notice any symptoms of kernicterus in your newborn baby, particularly if they have jaundice. Early recognition and treatment of hyperbilirubinemia are crucial to prevent the development of kernicterus and its associated complications. Regular monitoring of bilirubin levels in at-risk infants and early intervention are crucial in preventing this devastating condition.

How is kernicterus prevented in infants?

Preventing kernicterus involves identifying and managing hyperbilirubinemia, which is the underlying cause of the condition.

Here are some ways to prevent kernicterus:

Regular monitoring of bilirubin levels:

All newborns should be assessed for jaundice, which is a sign of hyperbilirubinemia. Bilirubin levels can be measured using a blood test or a non-invasive device that measures bilirubin levels through the skin. This can help identify newborns at risk of developing kernicterus.

Risk factor identification:

Certain factors can increase the risk of hyperbilirubinemia and kernicterus, including prematurity, low birth weight, a family history of jaundice, and certain medical conditions. Identifying these risk factors early can help healthcare providers monitor these babies more closely.

Early intervention:

Early intervention is crucial in the cases of early identification of hyperbilirubinemia. Treatment may include phototherapy or exchange transfusion. Prompt treatment can prevent the bilirubin levels from reaching levels that can cause kernicterus.

Breastfeeding:

Breastfeeding is beneficial for newborns, but it can also increase the risk of hyperbilirubinemia. Healthcare providers should monitor breastfeeding newborns closely for signs of jaundice.

Education:

Parents should have knowledge about the signs of hyperbilirubinemia and kernicterus. They should understand the seriousness of the condition. Healthcare professionals should encourage them to seek medical attention if they notice any symptoms in their newborn babies.

Preventing kernicterus in infants involves regular monitoring of bilirubin levels, identifying risk factors, early intervention, promoting breastfeeding while monitoring for jaundice, and educating parents and caregivers.

Early recognition and treatment of hyperbilirubinemia are essential to prevent the development of kernicterus and its associated complications. Regular monitoring of bilirubin levels in at-risk infants and early intervention are crucial in preventing this devastating condition.

Frequent feeding: Proper and regular feeding can help prevent dehydration in the baby and promote the excretion of bilirubin in the stool.

Supplemental feedings: In some cases, a healthcare provider may recommend supplementing breast milk or formula with additional nutrients, such as vitamin D, to help manage jaundice.

Skin-to-skin contact: Skin-to-skin contact with the mother or father can help promote bonding and may help regulate the baby’s body temperature and promote weight gain.

Exposure to sunlight: Natural sunlight for a minutes at a time may treat mild jaundice. However, it is important to consult with a healthcare provider before attempting this, as overexposure to sunlight can be harmful to the baby.

It is important to note that these measures should be used in conjunction with medical treatment and should not be used as a substitute for medical care. If a baby is showing signs of severe jaundice or is not responding to treatment, medical attention should be sought immediately.

Can Home Remedies cure Kernicterus?

No, home remedies cannot cure kernicterus. Kernicterus is a serious medical condition that requires prompt and appropriate medical treatment. Treatment typically involves phototherapy, which uses special lights to break down bilirubin in the blood, and in severe cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary. It is important to seek medical attention immediately if a newborn shows signs of jaundice or kernicterus.

FAQ on Kernicterus

Can kernicterus be prevented?

Kernicterus can be prevented with early detection and treatment of high bilirubin levels. This typically involves phototherapy, which uses special lights to break down bilirubin in the blood. In severe cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary.

How common is kernicterus?

Kernicterus is a rare condition, with an estimated incidence of 1 in 100,000 live births. However, it can be more common in certain high-risk groups, such as premature infants and those with blood type incompatibility.

Is kernicterus treatable?

The effects of kernicterus are permanent, but early detection and treatment can minimize the damage. Treatment typically focuses on managing symptoms and preventing further complications.

What are the long-term effects of kernicterus?

Kernicterus can cause long-term neurological effects, including hearing loss, vision problems, movement disorders, cognitive impairment, and developmental delays. These effects can be permanent and may require lifelong management and support.

What are the symptoms of kernicterus?

Symptoms of kernicterus may include a high-pitched cry, poor feeding, lethargy, decreased muscle tone, fever, and seizures. Later symptoms can include hearing loss, vision problems, and movement disorders.

What causes kernicterus?

Kernicterus is caused by elevated levels of bilirubin in the blood, which can occur when the liver is not able to process bilirubin properly. This can happen due to a variety of factors, including premature birth, blood type incompatibility between the mother and baby, and certain genetic conditions.

What is the difference between jaundice and kernicterus?

Jaundice is a common condition in newborns characterized by a yellowing of the skin and eyes due to elevated levels of bilirubin in the blood. Kernicterus, on the other hand, is a rare and serious complication of severe jaundice that can cause permanent brain damage. It occurs when bilirubin levels in the blood become dangerously high and the pigment crosses the blood-brain barrier, causing damage to brain cells.

Who is at risk for kernicterus?

Premature infants and babies with certain medical conditions are at a higher risk for developing kernicterus. Babies with a family history of jaundice or who are born to mothers with certain blood types are also at increased risk.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

Last Updated on May 5, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

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