Jaundice is a condition commonly seen in new born babies, usually identified by a yellowing of their skin, treatment for which is very straightforward using phototherapy or light treatment. It roughly affects 60% of full term babies and 80% of premature babies with breast fed babies being at greater risk.

Jaundice generally lasts up to two weeks, and whilst usually harmless, it is important it is diagnosed early, monitored and treated as in extreme cases, it can cause a type of brain damage known as kernicterus.

We recently spoke to Tim Jones, an experienced catastrophic injury and medical negligence lawyer at Brain Injury Group members Enable Law to learn more about kernicterus.

What causes jaundice and how can this usually harmless condition, cause brain damage?

Jaundice is caused by excessive amounts of a yellow pigment called bilirubin. Bilirubin is present in everyone’s blood, a by-product produced by the breakdown of red blood cells. If produced in excess, new born babies bodies cannot always cope and dispose of the excess bilirubin, and jaundice occurs. First signs of jaundice in a new born baby is generally a yellow discolouration of the skin and the whites of their eyes. In addition, there can be dark staining of urine and pale chalky stools.

Its important in babies with jaundice that their bilirubin levels are monitored closely and treated with phototherapy or light treatment. In some cases, an exchange blood transfusion will be necessary. If bilirubin levels are not correctly monitored and brought down to a safe level, they can give rise to potentially toxic levels which can cause damage to the brain known as kernicterus.

What are the warning signs to look out for with kernicterus?

Initial signs of kernicterus can include, but are not limited to, poor feeding, floppiness, seizures, arching of the spine and failure to respond to stimulus. If parents are worried that their baby is displaying any of these signs whilst suffering jaundice, they should seek urgent advice from a medical professional.

Does kernicterus only affect young babies?

It is very rare in adults – adults can develop high bilirubin levels but almost never kernicterus.

What are the long-term implications of kernicterus?

Unfortunately, kernicterus is permanent. It can vary greatly in severity and every child affected will display varying degrees of disability. Commonly, it will include a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, damage to hearing, learning disabilities and impaired eye movement, particularly the inability to move their eyes to look upwards, known as upward gaze palsy. The ability to look down is rarely affected. Additionally, enamel dysplasia, which is a defect of the teeth which causes the enamel to be thin and have a yellowish-green staining, will be present in many cases.

Life expectancy is rarely affected but it is likely children affected will need long term care, rehabilitation, and assistance with education.

If someone suspects their child’s bilirubin levels were not monitored correctly, what can they do?

Whilst we all understand errors occur, the incorrect monitoring of bilirubin levels, leading to kernicterus brain damage, can cause life changing injuries and have a huge emotional and financial impact on families affected. It is important to seek advice from a specialist medical negligence solicitor, experienced in dealing with kernicterus claims as they are rare. They will investigate the matter on your behalf and if it is found that the care of your newborn baby was negligent, it may be possible to bring a claim against the Hospital.

Having a specialist lawyer deal with your case, they will be concerned not only with monetary compensation, but more importantly, ensuring your child receives the best rehabilitation and is able to live a comfortable and fulfilled life which may include the provision of specialist equipment, therapies, adapted property and carers to work alongside parents, to assist with ongoing care, easing some of the pressure on parents and allowing them to enjoy leisure time with their child.

Finding out your child has suffered brain damage as a result of negligent care is a devastating time, but there are charities, support groups and organisations who can assist.

With thanks to Tim Jones at Enable Law

Tim Jones is a legal director at Enable Law, who are part of Brain Injury Group and have offices in London and throughout the South West of England (including Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, Taunton and Truro). He has extensive experience in dealing with brain injury claims, including brain injury as a result of medical negligence, and last year settled a case for a monetary value of £24 million for a child who suffered kernicterus brain damage.

About Brain Injury Group

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