Symptoms and Signs of Newborn Jaundice

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 10/22/2021

Doctor's Notes on Newborn Jaundice

Jaundice is the s the yellowish discoloration of the skin, mucous membranes and the whites of the eyes (sclerae). Jaundice is common in newborns and is called neonatal jaundice. Jaundice is caused by elevated levels of bilirubin in the blood (hyperbilirubinemia). Most commonly, this is due to immaturity of the liver in the newborn. More rarely, newborn jaundice can be caused by more serious conditions such as blood cell or metabolic defects.

Signs and symptoms of newborn jaundice include yellowed skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Associated symptoms and signs include light-colored stool, lethargy, poor feeding, and changes in muscle tone. Kernicterus is caused by prolonged, highly elevated levels of bilirubin affecting the central nervous system. It can cause irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system.

What Is the Treatment for Newborn Jaundice?

Frequent feeding with breast milk or formula is encouraged for newborns with jaundice, because this causes them to produce more stool and urine, and thus eliminate bilirubin more rapidly from the body.

The most common medical treatment for neonatal jaundice is phototherapy. Phototherapy (light treatment) involves placing the newborn under artificial blue lights that work by converting bilirubin to lumirubin through a chemical reaction that occurs when the baby’s skin is exposed to these lights. This conversion of bilirubin allows the newborn to more easily eliminate bilirubin from the body. 

For more serious cases of newborn jaundice, treatments such as exchange transfusion or intravenous immunoglobulin may be considered.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.