Jaundice is not a disease but rather a sign that can occur in many different diseases. Jaundice is the yellowish staining of the skin and sclerae (the whites of the eyes) that is caused by high levels in blood of the chemical bilirubin. The color of the skin and sclerae vary depending on the level of bilirubin. When the bilirubin level is mildly elevated, they are yellowish. When the bilirubin level is high, they tend to be brown.
Jaundice is common in newborn babies and will usually clear without treatment. However, for adults the symptoms of jaundice usually indicate damage to the liver. If the cause of the jaundice is not treated, liver failure can result.
Sings and Symptoms of Jaundice
A simple test for jaundice is to gently press your fingertip on the tip of your child’s nose or forehead. If the skin shows white (this test works for all races) there is no jaundice; if it shows a yellowish color, you should contact your child’s doctor to see if significant jaundice is present.
Breast Milk Jaundice — A very small number of breastfed babies, roughly 1percent to 2 percent, develop jaundice because of substances in their mother’s breast milk that cause their bilirubin levels to rise.
Infant jaundice commonly lasts for a week to 10 days in full-term newborns. If your baby is premature or if you breast-feed your baby, jaundice may last longer.
Jaundice may occur with the breakdown of red blood cells due to hemolytic disease of the newborn (Rh disease), having too many red blood cells, or bleeding.
Physiological Jaundice — This type of jaundice affects 50percent to 60 percent of full-term newborns in their first week, typically three to five days after birth. It occurs when a baby’s liver is not able to sufficiently process bilirubin. Typically this condition disappears within one to two weeks. Because their livers are less mature, preterm babies are more frequently affected by this form of jaundice.
Treatment of Jaundice
Since jaundice is a symptom, not a specific disorder, treatment for it depends on its cause. This can range from the removal of gallstones or tumors to antibiotics to treat infections, to liver transplant in cases where the liver is severely damaged. However, for conditions like cirrhosis and chronic hepatitis, which are lifelong problems, jaundice may be permanent or recurring.
Exchange blood transfusion. Rarely, when severe jaundice doesn’t respond to other treatments, a baby may need an exchange transfusion of blood. This involves repeatedly withdrawing small amounts of blood, “diluting out” the bilirubin and maternal antibodies, and then transferring blood back into the baby a” a procedure that’s performed in a newborn intensive care unit.
Jaundice in newborns must be treated if it becomes severe as deposits can cause permanent brain damage. In all other cases, it is not the jaundice that needs to be treated but the underlying condition. When/if the condition resolves, then the jaundice will resolve as well. If an obstruction is present, surgery may be necessary.
Light therapy (phototherapy). Your baby may be placed under a special ultraviolet light or wrapped in a fiber-optic blanket of light. The light changes the bilirubin into a form that can be eliminated by your baby’s kidneys. Newborns with jaundice typically receive phototherapy for several days.