Baby With Kernicterus: What is it and How is it Treated?

medical malpractice lawyers Portland Oregon

Ask Our Medical Malpractice Lawyer in Oregon About Your Baby With Kernicterus

While the birth of a child is a joyous event, complications can occur during labor and delivery, or shortly after birth that can cause harm to the newborn. While some complications may be minor (i.e bruising due to the use of forceps), other complications can be more serious and life altering. When these complications occur, early detection is key to minimize severity of these complications. One complication that should really never occur is kernicterus. Kernicterus is considered to be a birth injury. It occurs shortly after birth and is almost always related to medical malpractice. This is why you should always have your baby with kernicterus evaluated by our trained lawyers.

Kernicterus starts as jaundice and can end with severe brain injuries that are debilitating and sometimes fatal.  Always ensure that a baby who has any type of jaundice if properly evaluated by a healthcare malpractice lawyer like ours in Oregon.  We will review to ensure that your family gets the correct review and recovers the compensation that your family deserves.  We also ensure that your loved one has the best treatment going forward that is possible.  Ask for a FREE review from our lawyers—we only get paid after we recover it for you in a settlement, court verdict, or arbitration award.

What is Jaundice?

Jaundice is a condition that occurs as the result of an elevated bilirubin level. Babies with jaundice appear to have a yellow tinge to their skin, eyes and tissues. If bilirubin levels do not decrease on their own, the baby may require phototherapy.  While it can resolve on it’s own, there is also the possibility that is may progress to kernicterus if left untreated. 

How is Jaundice Diagnosed?

Jaundice is usually detected by physical assessment of the newborn as well as blood work. Physicians assessing the newborn will note that the newborn’s eyes, skin and tissues have a yellow hue to them, prompting further testing and treatment. Additionally, babies have bilirubin levels checked while in the hospital to ensure the baby is not suffering from jaundice. 

What are the Risk Factors for Jaundice?

There are some risk factors that may place the infant at risk for jaundice. The risk factors for jaundice include the following:

  • Babies born prematurely – Babies who are born before 38 weeks are at higher risk for jaundice due to their difficulty with processing bilirubin
  • Babies who are breast-fed – Babies who are breast-fed are at higher risk as some babies may struggle to nurse right away, leading to dehydration
  • Race – Babies who are from the East Asian ancestry are at high risk for jaundice
  • Blood type – If the baby has a different blood type than their mother, they may have received antibodies through the placenta, causing an abnormally fast breakdown of red blood cells 
  • Bruising that occurs during birth – Babies bruised during birth are at higher risk for jaundice due to the breakdown of more red blood cells due to the injury

Kernicterus Explained

Kernicterus is a condition that develops as the result of untreated jaundice. About 60% of babies are born every year with jaundice. While jaundice may go away on it’s own without treatment, there are times when a baby will require phototherapy with the use of lights to resolve the jaundice. In either case, jaundice always needs to be closely followed to ensure that it resolves. This is because there is a condition known as kernicterus that is incredibly dangerous to infants. If a physician fails to diagnose and treat jaundice in a timely manner, kernicterus will develop. In cases of jaundice, the bilirubin level continues to increase to dangerous levels, known as hyperbilirubinemia. Untreated jaundice leading to kernicterus can cause irreversible brain damage. Babies who develop kernicterus are likely to suffer some degree of neurological damage, but often it is significant. Kernicterus should never occur as it is directly related to a physician or other healthcare provider’s failure to diagnose jaundice when it is in an easily treatable state. 

Signs and Symptoms of Kernicterus

While jaundice should never progress to kernicterus, if it does the baby may exhibit certain signs and symptoms of the condition. The most common signs and symptoms of kernicterus include the following:

  • Lethargy
  • Arching of the back
  • Severe irritability 
  • Decrease in urine output and the amount of wet diapers produced
  • Muscle tone that is abnormal
  • Crying that sounds high pitched
  • Difficulty arousing the newborn
  • Fevers
  • Decreased oral intake
  • Abnormal suck while feeding
  • Tonic movements

How is Kernicterus Diagnosed?

Kernicterus is diagnosed through the use of the following: 

  • Blood tests to identify an abnormal bilirubin level
  • Physical exam – the baby will have yellowing of the skin. Additionally, they will exhibit some or all of the signs above, indicating that brain damage has occurred

Treatment of Kernicterus

The treatment for kernicterus often includes the following:

  • Phototherapy – this treatment uses fluorescent light bulbs or other sources of light to lower the level of bilirubin in the blood. While undergoing this therapy, the baby’s eyes are covered to prevent damage to the retinas. Phototherapy may last anywhere from 24 hours to a week. During this time, the baby’s bilirubin levels are checked to ensure that they are trending downwards to a more acceptable range
  • Blood transfusion – blood transfusions are almost always administered to babies suffering from kernicterus to reduce the amount of bilirubin in the blood
  • IV hydration – IV hydration is given to aid in the movement of bilirubin through the body and to aid in the overall hydration status of the infant

Kernicterus Due to Medical Malpractice

As stated above, kernicterus should never occur. Jaundice is a condition that generally is very easily treatable, thus making kernicterus nearly 100% preventable. Medical malpractice is nearly always to blame due to how preventable kernicterus can be. If the parents however fail to bring their baby in for their followup appointment right after birth and the baby develops kernicterus, this is not necessarily the fault of the physician unless the physician failed to treat jaundice while hospitalized. Examples of medical malpractice related kernicterus include the following:

  • Failing to diagnose jaundice
  • Failing to treat jaundice (i.e. with phototherapy)
  • Failing to properly monitor jaundice through use of blood testing for bilirubin monitoring
  • Failing to ensure there is follow up of the infant
  • Misinterpreting or mixing up lab reports on multiple patients, leading to the infant going untreated
  • Failing to diagnose kernicterus, leading to even more severe brain damage
  • Allowing novice physicians to treat newborn babies without oversight, leaving babies at risk for kernicterus if the new physician is not familiar with the condition
  • Failing to recognize jaundice vs. kernicterus, leading to a less intensive form of treatment for the newborn

Ask Us For Help If Your Baby With Kernicterus Got Less Than Acceptable Medical Treatment

If you or a loved one have been seriously injured or killed as a result of medical malpractice contact the Oregon Medical Malpractice Lawyers at Kuhlman Law at our number below or fill out the intake form.  We offer a free initial case evaluation and handle cases on a contingency fee which means that you pay no money unless we recover.

Our law firm handles cases throughout the state including Bend and Portland Oregon, Redmond, Central Oregon, Sisters, Madras, Multnomah County, Deschutes County, Salem, Eugene, Corvallis, Lane County, Medford, Gresham, La Grande, Albany, Medford, Beaverton, Umatilla, Pendleton,  Cottage Grove, Florence, Oregon City, Springfield, Keizer, Grants Pass, McMinnville, Tualatin, West Linn, Forest Grove, Wilsonville, Newberg, Roseburg, Lake Oswego, Klamath Falls, Happy Valley, Tigard, Ashland, Milwakie, Coos Bay, The Dalles,  St. Helens, Sherwood, Central Point, Canby, Troutdale, Hermiston, Silverton, Hood River, Newport, Prineville, Astoria, Tillamook, Lincoln City, Hillsboro, and Vancouver, Washington.

We also have an office in Minneapolis, Minnesota and take medical malpractice cases throughout the Twin Cities, including St. Paul, Hennepin County, Ramsey County, Dakota County, Washington County, Anoka County, Scott County, Blaine, Stillwater, and Saint Paul Minnesota.

For a free case evaluation


(541) 385-1999 in Bend, Oregon
(503) 479-3646 in Portland, Oregon
(612) 444-3374 in Minnesota

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