What Are Jaundice (Hyperbilirubinemia) and Kernicterus?

  • Jaundice: Infant jaundice, also known as hyperbilirubinemia, is characterized by a yellowish discoloration of the eyes and skin of a newborn infant. Jaundice occurs because the baby’s blood contains excessive levels of bilirubin, a yellowish byproduct of red blood cell breakdown. While all babies are born with jaundice to some extent, severe and untreated jaundice may cause permanent brain injuries, kernicterus, and resultant cerebral palsy.
  • Kernicterus: Kernicterus occurs when a baby’s bilirubin levels are so high that the bilirubin moves from the blood to the brain tissue, resulting in brain damage, hearing loss, and other complications.

Whether your child’s cerebral palsy resulted from jaundice, kernicterus, or another birth injury, the skilled and experienced Michigan cerebral palsy attorneys are here to help you answer your questions. Call us toll-free at (888) 592-1857 or complete this online contact form for a free evaluation of your child’s cerebral palsy case.

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What Causes Jaundice and Kernicterus?

  • Jaundice and Kernicterus - Cerebral Palsy Attorneys in MichiganJaundice: Jaundice is one of the most common health problems in premature and full term infants, and while most babies are able to easily process bilirubin, some babies (particularly premature or breastfed babies) can’t metabolize the bilirubin and end up with  dangerous amounts of bilirubin in the bloodstream. There are also underlying conditions that may lead to excessive bilirubin in babies including:
    • Blood incompatibilities between the infant and mother
    • Prematurity: Premature babies are more likely to have high red blood cell levels, which leads to high bilirubin levels.
    • Macrosomia: Larger than average babies (often due to maternal or gestational diabetes) often have hyperbilirubinemia due to blood cell issues.
    • Intracranial hemorrhaging: Brain bleeds from traumatic births (for instance, from the misuse of forceps and vacuum extractors) can cause jaundice. Cephalohematomas (in which a baby bleeds under the scalp) commonly cause high bilirubin levels.
    • Maternal Infection: Infections like sepsis, rubella and syphilis may transfer from the mother to child and can cause hyperbilirubinemia.
  • Kernicterus: Kernicterus is caused by excessive levels of bilirubin during an infant’s first week of life. Though kernicterus is most commonly developed because jaundice/hyperbilirubinemia go untreated, it is largely seen in premature or sick newborns because their underdeveloped livers and kidneys are unable to quickly remove the excess bilirubin.

What Are the Signs of Jaundice and Kernicterus?

  • Jaundice: Jaundice is characterized by lethargy, high-pitched crying, decreased muscle tone (with occasional episodes of increased muscle tone), and arching of the head backwards.
  • Kernicterus: As jaundice worsens into kernicterus, babies develop fever, difficulty feeding, and more extreme arching of the head backwards.

What Risks Are Associated with Jaundice and Kernicterus?

When jaundice and hyperbilirubinemia go untreated and develop into kernicterus, babies risk developing the following:

  • Seizures
  • Movement disorders
  • Hearing loss
  • Impairment of eye movements
  • Various forms of cerebral palsy

How Are Jaundice and Kernicterus Treated?

Jaundice - Kernicterus - Treatment - Michigan Cerebral Palsy AttorneysJaundice is very easy to diagnose and treat—treatments include blood exchange transfusions, treatment of the underlying causes of the condition, and forms of phototherapy (using special lights to decrease bilirubin levels).

On the other hand, the consequences of kernicterus are permanent and irreversible. Since there is essentially no way for a newborn to develop kernicterus without first having an untreated case of hyperbilirubinemia, it is likely that babies with kernicterus are victims of medical malpractice.

Legal Help for Jaundice and Kernicterus

Whenever the signs and symptoms of jaundice are present, damage is occurring. Therefore, it is important for medical professionals to note these signs and treat hyperbilirubinemia. Delaying diagnosis and treatment is considered medical negligence.

The following incidents also reflect negligence on the part of medical professionals:

  • Postponing treatment under the assumption that lab results are false: Sometimes, physicians believe the test results of a baby’s bilirubin level are off and redo the test before beginning treatment. Since no negative effects result from treating jaundice (even when the condition is absent), it is negligent to postpone treatment until the baby’s next round of test results come in.
  • Postponing treatment or interrupting phototherapy for diagnostic testing to determine the risk of an exchange transfusion. If physicians need a sepsis workup, they can get it during treatment. If the baby needs to go for an outside test, the lights can go with her.
  • Failure to perform an exchange transfusion in a timely manner
  • Failure to examine the baby for signs of acute kernicterus
  • Using the indirect bilirubin instead of the total serum bilirubin to make treatment decisions
  • Letting the bilirubin reach potentially dangerous levels
  • Measuring the bilirubin and failing to compare it to hour-specific norms
  • Failure to properly use forceps or vacuum extractors, thereby contributing to jaundice levels
  • Failure of the hospital to have policies in place for monitoring bilirubin levels (particularly in high risk premature babies)
  • Failure of a medical professional to obtain informed consent for any procedure, including methods of giving birth and the use of forceps or vacuum extractors

The birth injury lawyers at Michigan Cerebral Palsy Attorneys have years of experience obtaining compensation for medical malpractice cases regarding the failure to treat jaundice. To learn about past settlements and verdicts achieved by Michigan Cerebral Palsy Attorneys related to jaundice and kernicterus, visit our Verdicts & Settlements section here.

Cerebral palsy is an emotionally and financially taxing condition for those affected. Regrettably, negligence and medical malpractice are almost always behind the kernicterus that so often leads to cerebral palsy. The Michigan cerebral palsy attorneys urge you to reach out for the legal support you and your loved one deserve—call us today at (888) 592-1857.

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