Kernicterus is an unusual type of brain damage that happens in a newborn with serious jaundice (yellowing). It occurs when a substance in the blood–bilirubin–increases to very high levels and spreads into the tissues of the brain. This results in permanent brain damage. Kernicterus may be avoided by treating jaundice early before it gets too serious.
Kernicterus results from a high level of bilirubin in a newborn’s blood. If left uncared for, the bilirubin can then transfer into the brain, where it results in long-term negative effects. That is why it is vital to care for jaundice before bilirubin levels increase too much. After birth, it takes a few days for the baby’s liver to efficiently remove bilirubin from the blood. With feedings every few hours, mild jaundice will normally go away after a few days without intervention. If a newborn has any symptoms of jaundice at birth, he or she needs to be monitored carefully.
Kernicterus has likely already begun if a newborn has one or more of these signs: excessive lethargy and sleepiness; does not react to touching or does not become surprised from abrupt movements; an unusual high-pitched cry; poor muscle tone, including abnormal muscle flexing; fever, and seizures. Long-term damages from kernicterus include: movement problems, hearing loss or deafness, learning disabilities, developmental issues, and difficulties moving eyes.