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Jaundice is a common condition that affects around half of newborn babies, usually coming on about two days after birth. Premature babies are more susceptible, 75% of premature babies go on to develop jaundice after birth. Jaundice is caused by too much of a naturally produced serum, bilirubin, in the body. Bilirubin is created by the body breaking down red blood cells, and is then converted into a form that the body can dispose of as waste by the liver. However, babies break down significantly more red blood cells than an adult, producing proportionately more bilirubin, and the organs of a newborn baby aren't fully developed. Their body may produce more bilirubin than their liver can handle.
The symptoms of jaundice are a yellow tinge to the skin and in the whites of the eyes; sometimes presence of jaundice must be confirmed through blood tests. Historically, and wrongly, it was believed that people with jaundice saw everything with a yellow tint, giving rise to the notion of having a 'jaundiced view' of things.
Jaundice is usually treated by placing a baby under ultraviolet light. The eyes must be protected as UV light is harmful to them, but other than that, the treatment is simple, painless and in most cases successful over a two or three day period. In severe cases, a blood transfusion may be offered.
Jaundice suffered in adults or older children is harmless, but in newborn babies the brain tissues are still forming. Bilirubin can build up in the grey matter of the brain causing irreversible brain damage (called kernicterus) - this may be unnoticeable but in rare cases the damage can be severe, leading to loss of hearing, delayed development and learning difficulties.
Late onset jaundice can arise several days after birth and is more common in breast fed babies. Late onset jaundice usually clears up on its own without treatment, but look out for the yellowing signs and raise it with your doctor or health visitor if you suspect that your newborn might be suffering from jaundice.