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Jaundice in newborns

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Half of all newborns develop jaundice; a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Most often, jaundice isn't a concern, but severe cases can cause serious complications.

Jaundice itself isn't a disease. In most cases it occurs because your baby's liver isn't mature enough to metabolize a molecule called bilirubin, which normally forms when the body recycles old or damaged red blood cells.

In the first few days of life, more than half of all full-term babies and as many as 80 percent of premature infants who are otherwise healthy develop jaundice, a yellowish discoloration of the skin and eyes. Although some babies are jaundiced at birth, most develop the condition during the second or third day of life. That's why you may not notice it until after your baby is home.

Jaundice usually isn't a cause for alarm. It doesn't cause discomfort for your baby and most often disappears on its own in one to two weeks. Still, it should be closely monitored by your baby's doctor because severe jaundice can lead to serious complications. Phototherapy, a treatment using special ultraviolet lights, can help keep your baby's blood level of bilirubin from becoming too high.

Signs and symptoms

In most babies, signs and symptoms of jaundice appear in the second or third day of life and include:

  • Yellowing of the skin

  • Yellowing of the eyes

  • Lethargy, in some cases

You'll usually notice jaundice first in your baby's face. Later, his or her chest, stomach and legs also may turn yellow. An easy way to test for jaundice in newborns of any race is to gently press your finger on the baby's forehead or nose. If the skin looks yellow where you pressed, it's likely your baby has jaundice. It's best to examine your baby in natural daylight or in a room with fluorescent lights. In addition to checking for yellow skin, note whether the whites of the eyes are also yellow.

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.


Babies are born with a generous supply of red blood cells, which help transport oxygen. Over time, these red blood cells break down, forming bilirubin in the process. Bilirubin is normally transported to the liver where it's processed before being eliminated from the body. But newborns initially have more bilirubin than their livers can handle, and the excess causes their skin, and sometimes the whites of their eyes, to turn yellow. This type of jaundice, called physiologic jaundice, typically appears on the second or third day of life. Although any newborn can develop physiologic jaundice, it occurs more often, and is sometimes more severe, in premature babies because their livers are even less developed than are those of full-term infants.

Sometimes a baby may develop jaundice for other reasons. If jaundice is present at birth or appears within 24 hours, it may be the result of severe bruising, an infection in the baby's blood (sepsis), or an incompatibility between your blood and your baby's. Jaundice that develops in or lasts past the second week of life may be due to a liver malfunction, a severe infection, an enzyme deficiency or an abnormality of your baby's red blood cells.

Jaundice in newborns > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

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Last Modified : 03/15/08 01:14 AM