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Kernicterus (bilirubin toxicity)

Kernicterus is a rare but serious complication of severe untreated jaundice in newborn babies, caused by excess bilirubin damaging the central nervous system. It affects less than 1 in 100,000 babies in the UK.

Early signs include lethargy, decreased awareness of surroundings, loss of muscle tone (floppiness) and poor feeding. Late symptoms may include muscle rigidity, hyperextension of the neck or spine, or seizures.

Treatment is via exchange transfusion. If significant brain damage occurs before treatment the child may develop permanent disabilities including cerebral palsy, hearing loss and learning difficulties.


Further reading

Medline Plus (2015). Bilirubin encephalopathy. Available at:

NHS Choices (2015). Kernicterus in newborn babies. Available at:


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