How Hyperbilirubinemia and Medical Malpractice can be Responsible for Kernicterus in Newborn Babies

Kernicterus is a rare form of brain damage that occurs in some newly born infants with severe jaundice.  Jaundice is a yellow coloring of the skin, eyes or other tissue.  Kernicterus can occur from elevated levels of bilirubin which move from the blood into the brain tissues where it causes brain damage to the baby.

Bilirubin is a substance that is formed when the liver breaks down and removes old red blood cells that can be removed from the body in the stool. A minor increase in bilirubin levels is usually not a problem.  In fact, nearly half of all newborn infants have an increase in their bilirubin levels, due to the fact that their liver is not yet mature enough to break down the excess red blood cells they were born with. However, a significant increase in bilirubin or hyperbilirubinemia can lead to serious injuries to the baby including brain damage or kernicterus, hearing loss or deafness, eye problems, developmental disabilities, and even death.  When bilirubin levels are increased, jaundice may occur.

It is important to understand that kernicterus can be prevented.  If a newborn baby develops jaundice, they should be closely monitored.  With feedings every two to three hours, mild jaundice will usually go away on its own after a few days.  High bilirubin levels will require the baby be treated with phototherapy or a blood transfusion to reduce the bilirubin levels.  If hyperbilirubinemia has lead to kernicterus, then the brain damage is already happening.  It is critical that parents pay attention for these signs and seek medical attention immediately for the baby before additional brain damage occurs.

Kernicterus warning signs:

  • The baby is excessively sleepy or lethargic
  • It is difficult to awaken the baby.  Once awake, the baby can’t stay awake
  • The baby has a high pitched cry that sounds abnormal
  • The baby does not startle from sudden movements or touching
  • The baby has poor muscle tone, an arched back with the neck being hyper-extended backwards or unusual muscle flexing
  • The baby suffers from seizures or has a fever

If kernicterus has developed, there are treatments available to help the child better cope with the condition, including physical therapy, speech therapy, and special education.

For more information about kernicterus and how medical malpractice may be responsible, contact the Law Offices of Dr. Bruce G. Fagel & Associates at (800) 541-9376.  Visit Kernicterus Video for an informative video featuring Dr. Fagel.