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The consequences of untreated jaundice in babies: what happens if jaundice goes untreated?

View profile for Trevor Ward
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Jaundice is a common condition in newborn babies, affecting nearly 60% of infants in their first week of life. While many cases of jaundice are mild and resolve on their own, it is crucial to understand what happens if jaundice goes untreated. In this article, we will explore the potential complications of untreated jaundice and why early detection, and intervention is essential. 


Understanding jaundice 

Jaundice occurs when there is an excess of bilirubin in the bloodstream, leading to a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Bilirubin is a natural byproduct of the breakdown of red blood cells, and a healthy liver typically processes and removes it from the body. In newborns, jaundice often develops because their livers are still maturing and may not efficiently process bilirubin


Complications of untreated jaundice in babies 

1. Kernicterus: Kernicterus is a severe condition resulting from untreated jaundice. It occurs when excessive bilirubin levels cause damage to the brain. Babies with kernicterus may experience lifelong developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, hearing loss, and movement disorders. 


2. Bilirubin Encephalopathy: When untreated jaundice leads to high bilirubin levels in the brain, it can cause bilirubin encephalopathy. Symptoms may include lethargy, poor feeding, irritability, and muscle tone abnormalities. 


3. Long-term Neurological Effects: Even if kernicterus does not occur, untreated jaundice can still lead to long-term neurological effects. Some children may experience subtle cognitive deficits, which can affect their learning abilities and academic performance. 


4. Hearing Loss: High bilirubin levels can damage the structures of the inner ear, leading to permanent hearing loss in some cases. 


5. Delayed Development: Babies with untreated jaundice are at risk of experiencing delays in their physical and cognitive development. Early intervention can help mitigate these delays, but timely treatment is crucial. 


6. Behavioural and Psychiatric Issues: Some studies suggest a link between untreated jaundice and an increased risk of behavioural and psychiatric issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 


Prevention and Treatment 

To prevent the complications associated with untreated jaundice in babies, it's essential to monitor infants closely during their first week of life. Healthcare providers like the NHS (National Health Service) routinely assess bilirubin levels, and treatment options may include: 


1. Phototherapy: Phototherapy involves exposing the baby's skin to specific wavelengths of light that help break down bilirubin and facilitate its excretion. 


2. Exchange Transfusion: In severe cases, when phototherapy alone is insufficient, an exchange transfusion may be necessary to replace the baby's blood with donor blood to lower bilirubin levels. 


3. Addressing Underlying Causes: If jaundice is caused by an underlying condition, such as a blood type mismatch between the baby and mother, addressing the root cause is crucial. 



Untreated jaundice in babies can have serious and lasting consequences, including neurological and developmental issues. Recognising the signs of jaundice early and seeking prompt medical attention is vital to prevent these complications. Regular check-ups and monitoring by healthcare professionals can help ensure the well-being of newborns and mitigate the risks associated with untreated jaundice.