Q & A
What is jaundice?
Jaundice is a condition in which the skin, whites of the eyes and mucous membranes turn yellow because of a high level of bilirubin.
Bilirubin is a yellow chemical in hemoglobin, the substance that carries oxygen in your red blood cells. As red blood cells break down, your body builds new cells to replace them. The old ones are processed by the liver. If the liver cannot handle the blood cells as they break down, bilirubin builds up in the body and your skin may look yellow.
Infant jaundice is a common condition, particularly in babies born before 38 weeks of gestation and some breast-fed babies. Infant jaundice usually occurs because a baby’s liver isn’t mature enough to get rid of bilirubin in the bloodstream. In some babies, an underlying disease may cause infant jaundice.
What are the associated symptoms?
Sometimes, the person may not have symptoms of jaundice, and the condition may be found accidentally. The severity of symptoms depends on the underlying causes and how quickly or slowly the disease develops. If you have a short-term case of jaundice, you may have the following symptoms and signs:
- Abdominal pain.
- Flu-like symptoms.
- Change in skin color.
- Dark-colored urine and/or clay-colored stool.
To check for infant jaundice, press gently on your baby’s forehead or nose. If the skin looks yellow where you pressed, it’s likely your baby has mild jaundice. If your baby doesn’t have jaundice, the skin color should simply look slightly lighter than its normal color for a moment.
Examine your baby in good lighting conditions, preferably in natural daylight.
When to see a doctor?
Your baby should be examined for jaundice between the third and seventh day after birth, when bilirubin levels usually peak. If your baby is discharged earlier than 72 hours after birth, make a follow-up appointment to look for jaundice within two days of discharge
The following signs or symptoms may indicate severe jaundice or complications from excess bilirubin. Call your doctor if:
- Your baby’s skin becomes more yellow
- The skin on your baby’s abdomen, arms or legs looks yellow
- The whites of your baby’s eyes look yellow
- Your baby seems listless or sick or is difficult to awaken
- Your baby isn’t gaining weight or is feeding poorly
- Your baby makes high-pitched cries
- Your baby develops any other signs or symptoms that concern you
Causes of jaundice
Jaundice can happen for many reasons, such as:
- Blood diseases
- Genetic syndromes
- Liver diseases, such as hepatitis or cirrhosis
- Blockage of bile ducts
Mild infant jaundice often disappears on its own within two or three weeks. For moderate or severe jaundice, your baby may need to stay longer in the newborn nursery or be readmitted to the hospital.
Treatments to lower the level of bilirubin in your baby’s blood may include:
- Enhanced nutrition
- Light therapy (phototherapy)
- Intravenous immunoglobulin
- Exchange transfusion
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