From sweet corn-on-the-cob to tart lemon meringue pie, the color yellow is usually associated with things that are bright and cheery. However, when it comes to a yellowish skin color in a newborn or an adult, things are not so cheerful. As many may already know, that yellow cast to the skin is a symptom of jaundice, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), affects 60% of all babies born.
Jaundice is not a disease but a condition that occurs when a chemical called bilirubin builds up in a baby's blood. According to the Cleveland Clinic, bilirubin is a compound that is produced by the breakdown of hemoglobin from red blood cells. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) adds that if you have ever had a bruise and noticed that the skin went through a series of color changes during the healing process, the point at which you were seeing yellow in the bruise was the result of accumulated bilirubin. The NIH adds that approximately 1% of our red blood cells retire every day and are replaced with new red blood cells. The old red blood cells are processed by the liver and disposed of by the body in stool. If there are too may red blood cells retiring for the liver to process, yellow pigment levels build in the body. When there is enough to be visible, the result is jaundice. The NIH notes that most babies experience some degree of jaundice during the first week of life. The birthing process can force many red blood cells into early retirement and a newborn baby's liver is often unprepared to handle the load. In addition, bilirubin accumulates more easily as it takes a while for a mother's milk to come in and for a baby to begin stooling regularly to expel the bilirubin from their system. Jaundice can occur in babies of any race or ethnicity.
The CDC advises that although jaundice is common and usually passes on its own, if not treated, high levels of bilirubin can lead to a condition called kernicterus. Kernicterus is a form of brain damage that can develop when the levels of bilirubin in the blood system become so high that it moves out of the blood and into the brain tissue. A baby with kernicterus will be lethargic, sleepy or difficult to awaken, will have a high-pitched cry, decreased muscle tone making their body floppy combined with episodes or arching the head and back backwards. According to the CDC, untreated kernicterus can lead to a form of cerebral palsy, hearing loss, problems with vision and teeth, and mental retardation. Early detection and management of jaundice can prevent kernicterus. The CDC adds that, at a minimum, babies should be checked for jaundice every 8 to 12 hours in their first 48 hours of life and again before 5 days of age. Since jaundice can have such serious effects, the CDC advises remembering the acronym ACT:
Additionally, the CDC says you should ask the pediatrician to see your baby the day you call if your baby:
The CDC goes on to advise that parents should get emergency medical help if a baby:
Jaundice can be treated. The CDC notes that babies with high bilirubin levels will be undressed and put under special lights. The baby's milk intake may also need to be increased. In cases where the bilirubin level is very high, the doctor may do an exchange transfusion of the baby's blood. There are certain circumstances that will increase the chances of jaundice in a baby. The CDC lists the following risk factors that indicate a baby should be checked and monitored closely for early jaundice management:
Remember that jaundice is a common condition in newborn babies. By educating yourself to the risk factors, knowing the signs, being observant, and asking the right questions, you and your doctor will be fully capable of detecting jaundice at the earliest stage and providing the appropriate treatment to prevent any possible complications—and the color yellow can keep its bright and cheery designation!
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