Could jaundice protect newborns from sepsis? New research thinks so

Perhaps we were too quick to judge about this common condition.

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Jaundice is a common health issue many newborns face. You might have even faced it yourself with your newborn. Or you may have read about it if you are currently pregnant. Jaundice has an impact on 60% of term babies and around 80% of preterm babies one week after being born. 

In a nutshell, this condition that turns a baby’s skin yellow is caused by a high level of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced by the normal breakdown of red blood cells. The liver then processes the bilirubin. But because a newborn’s still-developing liver cannot properly process it, jaundice sometimes sets in.

While jaundice is usually nothing to worry about, sometimes babies need a bit of help to deal with it. Now, new research on causes of jaundice in newborn babies has made a startling new discovery about the cause of this condition. 

What are the causes of jaundice in newborn babies?

Study says jaundice may have evolved to protect newborns

A new study published in Nature claims jaundice can shield newborns from a life threatening condition called sepsis. Sepsis can set in if harmful bacteria invade an open wound. In a newborn or young baby, it can potentially be fatal. 

The first sign that jaundice could shield babies from sepsis came in 2009, when scientists discovered that bilirubin delayed the sprouting of the usual bacteria that causes sepsis in babies. 

After further research, these same scientists found an exciting discovery. They found that moderate concentrations of bilirubin decreased the growth of sepsis-causing bacteria by up to a third. 

What does this mean for newborns and their anxious parents? 

The study is certainly promising for finding a possible purpose for jaundice. And if you compare the two conditions – jaundice and sepsis – without a doubt, the latter is potentially far more harmful to a little one.

Also, the results will better allow medical professionals to decide whether or not to increase the normal bilirubin benchmark for babies at risk of sepsis – such as premature babies. Research into the matter continues. 

Still, it’s good for parents to be aware about jaundice and the causes of jaundice in newborn babies, as well as when to worry. 

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Causes of Jaundice in Newborn Babies

Causes of jaundice in newborn babies: Jaundice causes skin to become a bright yellow. | Image Source: stock photo

As mentioned earlier, jaundice is a condition whereby the skin turns yellow due to ineffective processing of bilirubin in newborns. 

For adults, bilirubin accumulation – and hence jaundice – is a red flag for a liver that isn’t working properly. That alone could signal underlying conditions like hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis. 

However, newborns have jaundice for a different reason.

Infants undergo a conversion from fetal to adult blood. Since they have too much oxygen-carrying red blood cells, much of these gets broken down into bilirubin.

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Unlike adults, though, their livers aren’t developed enough to process the massive amounts of bilirubin being released as the old red blood cells are broken down. Thus, jaundice ensues – but usually passes without a problem. 

Sometimes, though, too much bilirubin can cause diseases. Much of the risk comes from having too much bilirubin stay in the blood for a long period of time.

Over time, bilirubin can traverse over the blood-brain barrier, accumulating deep in the brain. Left untreated, these bilirubin accumulations can eventually cause developmental and brain conditions as the baby grows up.

Treatment for Jaundice

How Phototherapy is carried out. | Image Source: stock photo

Nowadays, medical professionals treat excessive bilirubin with light. The blue and white coloured phototherapy lamps aid the baby in transforming bilirubin so that it can be dissolved in water. That is, the lights help to perform a liver’s role while the baby’s still developing – while being non-invasive, easy and convenient to use.  

Phototherapy involves exposing the baby’s skin to light. Special fluorescent lights from phototherapy lamps make it much easier for the light to be absorbed into the skin, thereby helping the body break down bilirubin in the blood. 

Once bilirubin is broken down, it is passed through the excretory system and is eliminated. This process produces the greenish stool of your baby as well as the frequent and loose bowel movements.

If your baby is receiving phototherapy do note that:

  • It is not a replacement for visits to the doctor and tests needed to check your baby’s bilirubin levels. You should always consult a doctor to check the health status of your baby. A doctor can also help you determine the length of treatment time.   
  • Babies can get dehydrated due to frequent bowel movements, so do increase the fluid intake of your baby. If you are breastfeeding your baby, then increase the number of times that you breastfeed. Make sure your baby also drinks enough water.

When to Worry

Given that jaundice is a normal part of birth, it pays to know when your baby really needs medical attention. Bring your baby to the pediatrician if…

1. Baby’s skin gets more yellow and the colour spreads to the abdomen, arms and legs.

2. Eyes turn yellow.

3. Baby’s overall appearance seems tired, sick, listless, weary and finding it difficult to wake up on his own.

4. Appetite is decreasing – such that he is feeding poorly or not gaining any weight.

5. Your baby’s crying (especially in a high-pitched tone) never stops.

6. Developing other unusual symptoms.

 

References: Scientific ReportsNHCS,  The Conversation

Also Read:

Help! My baby has jaundice

Home phototherapy for newborn jaundice

What’s normal and what’s not in your newborn

What causes newborn jaundice?