Jaundice refers to a yellow tint of the skin usually due to liver immaturity in newborns or to liver disease in older children. In these conditions, a bile pigment called bilirubin accumulates in the blood stream and is deposited in the skin. Bilirubin is the breakdown product of red blood cells of the body which carry oxygen. It is the liver’s job to rid the body of this bilirubin. The liver of a newborn infant is not mature enough to do this job and hence bilirubin accumulates and the child can become jaundiced. Usually by five to seven days of life, an infant’s liver is mature enough to take care of the bilirubin load that the liver creates. Most babies develop some degree of jaundice which is a little more pronounced in breast fed babies. We want to check infants who develop jaundice which is present on the arms, legs and feet during the first 3 to 5 days of life. We also like to check infants whose jaundice lasts more than ten days. Under these circumstances, you should call for an appointment within 24 hours. The problem that significant jaundice presents is that it can cause brain damage in infants if the bilirubin level is too high. Low to moderate levels of bilirubin do no harm and will eventually go down as the liver matures.
The bilirubin level is checked in our office with a blood test. Jaundice which develops after the newborn period can be due to liver disease. All such children who develop jaundice should have a routine office visit to check this.
Sometimes, children who eat a lot of yellow vegetables (carrots and squash) develop a yellow tint to their skin, but not in the whites of the eyes. This is known as carotinemia and is not true jaundice. It is harmless and requires no treatment. We generally advise children who have carotinemia to eat less yellow vegetables.
Reviewed 3/17/17 by Dr. Byrum