Understanding Jaundice

Some degree of jaundice occurs in 95 percent of newborns. Here's what you need to know about the disease.
When to Worry: Jaundice
When to Worry: Jaundice
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WHAT: A yellow tint to the skin and eyes that is usually harmless and temporary; requires treatment in some cases.

WHO: Some degree of jaundice occurs in 95 percent of newborns. Those at risk of a serious case include: preemies, infants who aren't eating enough or who have siblings who had serious jaundice, and babies who were jaundiced within the first 24 hours. Breastfed infants are also at a higher risk, particularly if nursing is not going well.

WHY: The buildup in the blood of a yellow pigment called bilirubin, a by-product of red blood cells that is normally removed by the liver. Newborns have trouble processing bilirubin because the liver is still developing. So bilirubin stays in the blood, giving the skin a yellow coloring. One percent of babies develop a very high blood level of bilirubin, which is toxic to brain cells, says Jeffrey Maisels, MD, chair of the committee that wrote new jaundice guidelines for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

WHEN: Jaundice generally appears at three to five days after birth and dissipates after a week. It may take a little longer to subside in breastfed babies.

PREVENTION: According to new AAP guidelines, your baby should have a checkup for jaundice three to five days after birth. He'll need a follow-up visit if he was significantly jaundiced or if there's a change in his condition, Dr. Maisels says. Signs of a problem include a baby who is feeding poorly, sleepier than usual, or who looks increasingly yellow.

TREATMENT: Phototherapy, which simply involves placing the infant under special lights in the hospital for several hours.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2004.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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