How Undiagnosed and Untreated Jaundice At Birth Causes Brain Damage

The birth of a baby is an exciting times for parents who hope that their children will be born healthy. While many births go smoothly, some births are complicated and traumatic and may require an emergency cesarean section.

Some babies suffer serious injuries at birth, such as brain injuries. Even if all goes well during labor and delivery, a baby may still suffer from brain damage if doctors fail to diagnose certain conditions. For example, if jaundice goes undiagnosed and untreated in an infant, the baby can suffer brain damage.

What Is Jaundice?

Jaundice refers to the yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes and is a very common condition in newborns. It occurs when too much bilirubin builds up in the blood, but it is usually a temporary and harmless condition. However, in some infants, there’s a higher level of bilirubin, and their livers are too immature to properly remove the excess. 

When this happens, newborns babies need to be treated for jaundice because high levels of bilirubin are toxic to brain tissue. To treat this condition, infants are usually placed under special blue-green lighting—a process called phototherapy—that helps change the bilirubin in the baby’s body to a form that can be more easily excreted. Phototherapy usually lasts a few days until the baby’s liver is more mature and can handle the bilirubin.

Symptoms of Excess Bilirubin

Babies with high levels of bilirubin may exhibit some or all of these warning signs:

  • Fever
  • High-pitched screaming and crying
  • Arching of the neck and body backwards
  • Difficulty sucking or feeding
  • Strange eye movement
  • Overall irritability

What Parents Should Know About Untreated Jaundice

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 60 percent of newborn babies are diagnosed with jaundice about 60 percent of newborn babies are diagnosed with jaundice. Because jaundice is so common and most parents know of other babies who were born with this condition, many don’t realize just how serious it can be—especially when it goes undiagnosed or there is a delay in treatment.

Although this condition is common in babies, it can still be very serious. In fact, when jaundice isn’t diagnosed and treated immediately, it is possible that a baby can suffer brain damage such as kernicterus.

What Is Kernicterus?

Kernicterus is a condition that occurs when bilirubin levels are elevated and not treated. Failing to treat jaundice can sometimes cause the bilirubin to spread into the brain tissues and lead to kernicterus, a rare type of brain damage. If this happens, the life of an otherwise healthy baby can be changed forever. He may suffer neurological damage that affects hearing, eye movement, balance, and coordination. As a result, some infants with kernicterus have a form of cerebral palsy.

Medical Malpractice Could Be the Reason

There are standards of care in place that require doctors to timely diagnose and treat high levels of bilirubin in babies. When a doctor fails to conduct a bilirubin test, delays treatment of jaundice, doesn’t treat potentially dangerous bilirubin levels, or fails to conduct a thorough examination of the baby to look for signs of kernicterus, he may be acting in a negligent manner. Because it is easy for a doctor to diagnose and treat high bilirubin levels, it is devastating when a baby develops kernicterus due to a physician’s negligence.

It is extremely important that a newborn with high levels of bilirubin be treated right away. If not, the delay in treatment can lead to a life-long injury. If you believe your son or daughter’s brain damage was a result of untreated jaundice at birth, you may have many questions and want to know who’s responsible. To speak to an experienced attorney, please call us today for a free consultation at (703) 591-0067.