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Jaundice is a condition in which the eyes and skin of an individual become yellowish and discolored. In adults, this is largely caused by excessive amounts of bilirubin (a yellowish pigment that occurs when red blood cells break down). Excessive amounts of bilirubin may be present in the blood due to bladder conditions, excessive alcohol use, some medication (such as anabolic steroids), or viruses like Hepatitis A and B.
Jaundice is far more common in newborn babies. This is because a young baby’s liver is unable to process bilirubin efficiently enough to clear it from the bloodstream. Newborns produce more bilirubin than adults, due to a faster breakdown of red blood cells early in life. Where mature livers are able to process bilirubin and release it into the intestinal tract, the internal organs of a newborn are unable to process that quickly. This leads to an excess of bilirubin in the body. Jaundice most commonly occurs in infants within the 2nd and 3rd days of life.
Jaundice rarely produces symptoms other than the discoloration of skin and eyes. However, the condition may be caused by serious underlying health conditions.
- Internal bleeding
- An infection of the blood (sepsis)
- Blood incompatibility between mother and child
- Liver problems
- Bile duct disorders
- Enzyme deficiencies
- Blood disorders
If left untreated, excessive levels of bilirubin in the blood can lead to serious - potentially life-threatening - complications which can do damage to the brain and other organs. Because of this, even if your baby has mild jaundice, it is important to seek medical attention to check for other conditions and begin treatment.
Below is a list of common treatment options for jaundice. During your appointment, discuss these with your doctor to determine the right treatment plan for you.
Most adults do not require treatment for jaundice. If an underlying condition is causing the symptoms of discoloration, treatment of that condition will usually alleviate the yellowing skin and eyes associated with jaundice.
In newborns, mild cases of jaundice may also not require treatment. The condition will usually go away within 2-3 weeks, as the baby’s body is able to adapt to levels of bilirubin in the blood. However, for severe or persistent cases of jaundice, the following treatments may be recommended:
- Phototherapy: Light therapy - or phototherapy - involves placing your newborn under a special lamp that emits blue-green light. This is usually done on a special bed while the baby is wearing goggles to prevent the light from damaging developing eyes. The special blue-green light emitted during this therapy changes the structure of bilirubin molecules, making them easier to process in the liver.
- Immunoglobulin transfusion: Also known as intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg), this therapy is performed when jaundice is suspected to be caused by a blood incompatibility between mother and child. Immunoglobulin is a blood protein that reduces levels of antibodies - proteins produced to attack incompatible blood. This may lessen the symptoms of jaundice, as well as prevent other complications caused by blood type differences.
- Nutrition: Increasing the number of feedings a baby receives (8-12 a day for breastfeeding infants, 1-2 oz of formula every 2 to 3 hours for infants being bottle-fed) can help enhance nutrition and encourage more frequent bowel movements. More bowel movements help clear bilirubin from the blood through the stool. If increasing the number of feedings your baby receives does not adequately treat the condition, your doctor may recommend supplementation via formula to prevent weight loss and dehydration.