Just the Facts: Jaundice

During one of his more vulnerable moments, Kermit the Frog lamented that it’s not easy being green. True, but being yellow is no picnic either. And yet it is quite common for healthy newborns to develop a yellowish tinge to their skin in the first days of life. This condition, known as jaundice, is usually harmless and will disappear within a matter of days. Some cases, however, may signal a more serious illness that requires swift medical attention. Here’s how to tell the difference.

What is Jaundice?
Jaundice is a condition that appears when a newborn’s blood contains an excess of bilirubin, a chemical formed during the breakdown of red blood cells. The same process can occur in adults who have bruises. If you’ve ever had one, you probably remember the bruise changing colors as it healed. When it developed a yellowish hue, you were seeing a bilirubin buildup. Fortunately, this phase lasts for only a couple of days.

In infants, jaundice will first appear on the face, then on the chest and abdomen, and finally on the legs. Sometimes a yellowish tinge will appear in the eyes, too. Usually jaundice is most noticeable during the first few days of life, because a baby’s red blood cells are particularly prone to damage during the birthing process. And because bilirubin is flushed from the body through the stool, jaundice may persist until a baby experiences more regular bowel movements; this typically happens between the first 5 and 10 days of life.

How Can I Treat It?
In most cases, jaundice will disappear in 7 to 10 days without treatment. In rare instances, however, jaundice can worsen and pose a threat to your baby’s liver or delicate nervous system. When bilirubin levels become dangerously high, your baby will need to undergo phototherapy. During this procedure, your baby will be placed under special lights—often white, blue or green in color—or atop a light-producing blanket. Doctors will take great care in keeping your baby’s eyes covered; bright light can cause irreversible damage to developing retinas.

The high-intensity lights used during phototherapy break down bilirubin into a safer, less toxic substance that is easier to flush from the body. It’s important to keep your baby properly hydrating whiles she’s undergoing phototherapy, so frequent breast- or bottle-feedings are a must. If phototherapy fails to lower bilirubin levels, doctors will perform an emergency blood transfusion. This is exceptionally rare.

Safety Tip

Identifying jaundice early and notifying your pediatrician of the situation will help keep this common (and usually harmless) condition from developing into a more serious ailment—such as kernicterus, a form of brain damage caused by toxic levels of bilirubin that can lead to hearing loss, vision problems and, in more severe cases, cerebral palsy and mental retardation.

Spotting jaundice in fair-skinned infants is relatively easy. Most doctors suggest taking your baby into a well-lit room, applying gentle pressure to her chest, and looking for a yellowish hue to her skin as the pressure subsides. This technique may not work on children with darker skin, so look for yellowness in their gums. If you are still unsure, make an appointment with your pediatrician.

Further Reading
For more on common childhood illnesses, check out these added features: