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Kernicterus is a rare type of brain damage that occurs in newborns with severe jaundice (yellowing of the skin).

Warning Signs

Kernicterus is a rare type of brain damage that occurs in newborns with severe jaundice (yellowing of the skin). This condition occurs when a yellow chemical substance in the blood called bilirubin builds up to high levels and spreads through the brain causing permanent brain damage. The medical term for the excessive bilirubin in the blood is hyperbilirubinemia. The most common sign of Kernicterus is yellowing of the skin in the first 24 hours after birth. Children who develop Kernicterus usually are victims of medical malpractice.

Diagnosis & Care

Kernicterus can be prevented by treating jaundice in newborns as early as possible, before it has the chance to escalate and cause lasting damage. A low level of bilirubin buildup, or mild jaundice, is normal. After birth, it can take a few days for the infant’s liver to effectively remove the bilirubin from the blood, but with regular feedings every one to three hours, mild jaundice generally goes away on its own. Regular feedings allow bilirubin to keep moving through the body, eventually exiting the body through urine and stool. Kernicterus is diagnosed by a physician with a physical exam, knowledge of a child’s history, and blood tests to measure bilirubin levels.

If a baby shows any signs of jaundice at or after birth, he or she should be watched very closely. Kernicterus has probably already started if a newborn is extremely lethargic, does not respond to touching, does not startle from sudden movement, has an abnormally high-pitched cry, has poor muscle tone, experiences seizures, or has a fever.


Kernicterus can result in permanent damage to both the baby and his or her family. A careful evaluation of the entire labor and delivery process by an experienced medical malpractice lawyer can determine whether any injuries or damage could have been prevented. Medical records often provide evidence of problems and prove that medical care was negligent. If you believe your baby’s Kernicterus is the result of medical malpractice, contact the Law Offices of Wais, Vogelstein, Forman & Offutt for a free evaluation.

Treatment Centers

Kernicterus can cause long-term, permanent damage that may include movement difficulties, hearing loss, learning problems, developmental disabilities, and difficulty moving eyes. Despite the lasting damage that can be done, Kernicterus is preventable with proper testing and treatment. If an infant is showing signs of jaundice, the physician should perform a blood test as soon as possible to measure bilirubin levels. High levels require treatment either by blood transfusion or phototherapy. Quick intervention can prevent brain damage from occurring, but if lasting damage does occur, typical treatment for long-term injuries depend on the child’s specific problems. Common treatment options include physical therapy, speech therapy, and special education.

Books & Resources

For more information on Kernicterus, the following resources are available:

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