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Is Your Newborn’s Yellowish Skin a Sign of Serious Illness?

Is it a medical crisis if your newborn baby suddenly turns as yellowish or orangey?

The answer is probably not. About 70 percent of newborns get a mild case of neonatal jaundice within the first few days of life as their systems work to remove toxins built up in the liver while in the womb - and luckily the solution to jaundice for most infants is as simple as eating and pooping. As a mother's milk becomes more plentiful or a newborn eats more of liquid nutrient, toxins are generally purged from the system.

However, for some, newborn jaundice quickly develops into a serious and possibly life-threatening illness. And that is why all parents of newborns should be aware of the signs and symptoms that simple jaundice is moving to dangerous jaundice and when call a provider.

Neonatal jaundice, or yellowing a newborn's skill and other tissues, results when an infants level of bilirubin (the yellow breakdown product of heme, a element in hemoglobin and and an important component of red blood cells) rises above t85 umol/l (5 mg/dL). Jaundice in newborns is generally first noticed as a yellowing of the face -- generally eyes, forehead and cheeks. As the bilirubin level rises, the yellowing moves down the body to the trunk, legs and arms.

According to Seattle Children's Hospital there are four common types of neonatal jaundice:

Physiological jaundice (50% of newborns)

  • Onset 2 to 3 days of age
  • Peaks day 4 to 5, then improves
  • Disappears 1 to 2 weeks of age

Breastfeeding jaundice (5 to 10% of newborns)

  • Due to inadequate intake of breastmilk
  • Pattern similar to physiological type
  • Also, causes poor weight gain

Breastmilk jaundice (1% of newborns)

  • Due to substance in breastmilk which blocks destruction of bilirubin
  • Onset 4 to 7 days of age
  • Lasts 3 to 10 weeks
  • Not harmful

Rh and ABO blood group incompatibility

  • Onset during first 24 hours of life
  • Can reach harmful levels

Pediatricians caution parents to call 911 if their newborn infant is unresponsive or difficult to awaken or is not moving or is very weak. You should call your doctor immediately if you feel, for whatever reason, your baby needs to be seen or if your baby:

  • starts to look or act abnormal (e.g., decrease in activity or ability to suck)
  • is feeding poorly (e.g., little interest, poor suck, doesn't finish)
  • shows signs of dehydration (no urine in 8 hours, very dry mouth, sunken soft spot)
  • has a fever above 100.4° F (38.0° C) rectally (Caution: Do NOT give your baby any fever medicine before being seen)
  • has a low temperature below 96.8° F (36.0° C) rectally that doesn't respond to warming
  • has jaundice that began during the first 24 hours of life
  • has skin that looks deep yellow or orange, has reached the legs or seems worse than the last time a medical provider saw him
  • is at high-risk baby for severe jaundice (premature baby of 36 weeks or earlier, ABO or Rh blood group problem, sibling needed bili-lights, cephalohematoma, breastfeeding problems)

For more information on jaundice, click here: Seattle Children's Hospital on Jaundice

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