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Kernicterus - Medical Negligence Compensation Claim Solicitors


The conditions known as kernicterus and hyperbilirubinaemia are essentially the same, but can have very different outcomes, especially if not treated immediately. They both refer to some degree of jaundice in the newborn infant. The baby's skin appears yellow, as do the whites of the eyes.

Kernicterus and hyperbilirubinaemia are extremely serious conditions for an infant if left undiagnosed and untreated because the effects of these conditions can cause severe brain damage on a par with cerebral palsy which this disorder mimics. The symptoms are relatively easy to spot and a healthcare practitioner should have no problem with diagnosis however failure to diagnose in a timely manner is likely to be an act of medical negligence which entitles the victims solicitor to make application to a court of law for compensation. If you would like free advice from a specialist medical negligence solicitor without further any obligation just use the helpline or contact our solicitors offices by email. There is no charge for our solicitors advice and you are under no further obligation to use our legal services.


When a baby is first born jaundiced, bilirubin is the cause. Bilirubin is the orange/yellow coloured bile liquid and is caused by the breakdown of haeme (a component of haemoglobin). Bilirubin normally circulates in the blood plasma and is processed through the liver. When joined with fluid, it forms the yellow component in urine, bruises and jaundice.


Bilirubin is usually excreted through the liver, but an excess of bilirubin in a newborn baby's liver takes some days to eliminate. If it is a healthy, full term baby, minor jaundice is not serious and will disappear within about a week. Babies that have suffered bruising at birth, usually due to assisted delivery with forceps or vacuum extraction, are also likely to develop jaundice within the first week after birth. It should be noted that a large proportion of newborns will develop mild jaundice, but this is easily treated by ensuring the baby feeds well and blood tests for the level of bilirubin are carried out regularly. The jaundice should reach a peak by about the 4th day of life and then it should start to drop away as the baby’s liver processes this fluid.


Kernicterus is a condition of very high levels of jaundice (bilirubin) in the blood of a newborn which moves into brain tissue and causes rapid cell death with consequential severe brain damage. Although quick action can minimise the effect, the child often still suffers some permanent brain damage which results in specific disorders of movement, impaired eye movements, hearing loss or deafness and, later, yellow staining of their teeth. Advanced kernicterus often leads to an unsustainable life and is mostly fatal in the first year. Fortunately, the condition of kernicterus is completely preventable wherever there is adequate medical treatment available.


Also caused by excess bilirubin in the blood, this form of jaundice is far more prevalent, and also much easier to correct, sometimes completely naturally. While approximately six out of ten newborns have jaundice in varying degrees, hyperbilirubinaemia is more usual among premature babies.


Babies that begin to show signs of jaundice within hours of birth are most at risk of needing aggressive treatment to prevent the development of kernicterus. The major warning symptoms include the development of a high pitched cry, a baby too sleepy and lethargic to feed adequately, floppiness and the appearance of a deep jaundice colour that spreads rapidly below the abdomen.


There are several possible causes for this condition including :

  • Premature birth.
  • Presence of other ailments.
  • Assisted birth.
  • Incompatible blood types of the mother and baby (ABO incompatibilities).
  • Haemolytic anaemia (red blood cells are destroyed).
  • Hepatitis (liver inflammation).
  • Galactosaemia (inability to metabolise sugar).


The main form of treatment is triple phototherapy lights, which must be administered as soon as the jaundice is observed. The blue colour in the lights transforms toxic bilirubin into a non-toxic form that the baby’s body can excrete naturally. Another necessary treatment is feeding via a nasogastric tube (through the nose). In severe cases, the baby will need a transfusion of blood.


Many babies are born with hyperbilirubinaemia and they often overcome it naturally. However, the development of kernicterus is preventable if early treatment is instigated immediately upon observation of jaundice.


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The author of the substantive medical writing on this website is Dr. Christine Traxler MD whose biography can be read here