Jaundice Symptoms & Causes

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What is jaundice? 

Jaundice is a condition that occurs when a baby’s red blood cells break down, causing them to produce bilirubin, a brownish yellow substance that is difficult for a baby to discharge until his liver is fully developed and functioning. This can lead to a buildup of bilirubin in the baby’s blood, called hyperbilirubinemia. The coloring of the bilirubin causes the baby’s skin and the white part of his eyes to look yellow.

Types of jaundice

  • Physiologic jaundice: occurs as a response to the baby's limited ability to discharge bilirubin in the first days of life
  • Breast milk jaundice: occurs in breastfed babies due to low calorie intake or dehydration
  • Jaundice from hemolysis: occurs due to hemolytic disease of the newborn, high red blood cell count, or bleeding
  • Jaundice related to inadequate liver function: occurs due to infection or other factors 

What causes jaundice?

Jaundice is caused by the buildup bilirubin in a baby’s blood.

Is jaundice common?

Over half of all newborns develop some level of jaundice during their first week of life. Premature infants are more likely to develop jaundice.

What are the symptoms of jaundice?

The most common symptoms of jaundice are:

  • yellow coloring of the skin, usually beginning on his face and moving down the body
  • poor feeding
  • tiredness

Diagnostics

The timing of when jaundice first appears in a baby helps diagnose it.

First 24 hours of life:

  • can be very serious
  • usually requires immediate treatment

Second or third day of life:

  • usually physiologic jaundice
  • can be a different, more serious form

Third day through first week of life:

  • usually due to infection

Second week of life and beyond:

  • often breast milk jaundice

The following tests may also be conducted to determine if a baby has hyperbilirubinemia:

  • direct and indirect bilirubin levels (these levels show whether bilirubin is bound with other substances by the liver or is circulating in the blood)
  • red blood cell counts
  • blood type and Coomb's test (identifies certain proteins called antibodies that attack red blood cells)
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