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Kernicterus is a type of brain damage that is inflicted on an otherwise healthy infant. It is completely preventable with the proper medical care. Kernicterus had all but ceased to exist in the United States by the 1970s, due to advances in healthcare, but pediatric experts later changed the treatment guidelines for jaundice, the condition that underlies kernicterus, and cases of kernicterus have begun to appear again.

The Cause of Kernicterus

About 60% of all babies have some degree of jaundice, a condition that is manifested as yellow-toned skin and whites of the eyes. Jaundice develops when the baby's liver is not developed enough to remove bilirubin (a yellow-green byproduct of the normal breakdown of red blood cells).

Most of the time, the jaundice goes away without treatment. When the level of bilirubin is too high for the baby to deal with, phototherapy with blue lights may be prescribed. If the phototherapy does not adequately bring down the bilirubin level, a transfusion of blood may help.

Untreated Jaundice

A major problem underlying the development of kernicterus is the guidelines for deciding when to treat jaundice. If a baby has jaundice for too long, or if the jaundice is severe and is not treated, kernicterus may develop, and kernicterus can cause:

  • Brain damage
  • Mental retardation
  • Vision problems
  • Hearing damage
  • Dental problems
  • Athetoid cerebral palsy , which causes uncontrollable movements in the arms, legs, body and face

Risk Factors for Jaundice

Some babies have a greater risk of developing jaundice (and therefore a greater risk of suffering from kernicterus) compared to other infants. Risk factors for jaundice are:

  • Being "preterm" or premature — Babies who are born at a significantly early date (e.g., two weeks or more before the full term) may have a not-yet fully developed liver
  • Having a brother or sister who had jaundice
  • Having feeding difficulties
  • Having some bruising at birth — Such bruises are due to leakage from a blood vessel. When the bruise starts to heal, red blood cells die, and there may be high levels of bilirubin.
  • Early jaundice — A baby who is already yellow within 24 hours of birth may get dangerously jaundiced.
  • Heredity — Babies in East-Asian and Mediterranean families are at higher risk of becoming very jaundiced.
  • Blood type — Mothers with an O blood type or Rh-negative blood factor may have babies with higher than average bilirubin levels.

Contact a Kernicterus Lawyer for More Information

If your baby has jaundice or kernicterus and you suspect that his or her medical care has not been adequate, contact a kernicterus lawyer in your area to discuss your options. The development of kernicterus is sometimes due to medical malpractice.

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