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Neonatal Jaundice

Jaundice is the most common condition that requires medical attention in newborns.
The yellow coloration of the skin and sclera in newborns with jaundice is the result of
accumulation of unconjugated bilirubin. In most infants, unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia
reflects a normal transitional phenomenon. However, in some infants, serum bilirubin levels
may rise excessively, which can be cause for concern because unconjugated bilirubin is
neurotoxic and can cause death in newborns and lifelong neurologic sequelae in infants who
survive (kernicterus). For these reasons, the presence of neonatal jaundice frequently results
in diagnostic evaluation.
Neonatal jaundice may have first been described in a Chinese textbook 1000 years
ago. Medical theses, essays, and textbooks from the 18
and 19
centuries contain discussions
about the causes and treatment of neonatal jaundice. Several of these texts also describe a
lethal course in infants who probably had Rh isoimmunization. In 1875, Orth first described
yellow staining of the brain, in a pattern later referred to by Schmorl as kernicterus.
Neonatal physiologic jaundice results from simultaneous occurrence of the following 2
Bilirubin production is elevated because of increased breakdown of fetal erythrocytes. This
is the result of the shortened lifespan of fetal erythrocytes and the higher erythrocyte mass
in neonates.
Hepatic excretory capacity is low both because of low concentrations of the binding protein
ligandin in the hepatocytes and because of low activity of glucuronyl transferase, the
enzyme responsible for binding bilirubin to glucuronic acid, thus making bilirubin water
soluble (conjugation).
Bilirubin is produced in the reticuloendothelial system as the end product of heme
catabolism and is formed through oxidation-reduction reactions. Approximately 75% of
bilirubin is derived from hemoglobin, but degradation of myoglobin, cytochromes, and
catalase also contributes. In the first oxidation step, biliverdin is formed from heme through
the action of heme oxygenase, the rate-limiting step in the process, releasing iron and carbon
monoxide. The iron is conserved for reuse, whereas carbon monoxide is excreted through the
lungs and can be measured in the patient's breath to quantify bilirubin production.
Next, water-soluble biliverdin is reduced to bilirubin, which, because of the intramolecular
hydrogen bonds, is almost insoluble in water in its most common isomeric form (bilirubin
IX Z,Z). Because of its hydrophobic nature, unconjugated bilirubin is transported in the
plasma tightly bound to albumin. Binding to other proteins and erythrocytes also occurs, but
the physiologic role is probably limited. Binding of bilirubin to albumin increases postnatally
with age and is reduced in infants who are ill.
The presence of endogenous and exogenous binding competitors, such as certain drugs,
also decreases the binding affinity of albumin for bilirubin. A minute fraction of
unconjugated bilirubin in serum is not bound to albumin. This free bilirubin is able to cross
lipid-containing membranes, including the blood-brain barrier, leading to neurotoxicity. In
fetal life, free bilirubin crosses the placenta, apparently by passive diffusion, and excretion of
bilirubin from the fetus occurs primarily through the maternal organism.
When it reaches the liver, bilirubin is transported into liver cells, where it binds to
ligandin. Uptake of bilirubin into hepatocytes increases with increasing ligandin
concentrations. Ligandin concentrations are low at birth but rapidly increase over the first few
weeks of life. Ligandin concentrations may be increased by the administration of
pharmacologic agents such as phenobarbital.
Bilirubin is bound to glucuronic acid (conjugated) in the hepatocyte endoplasmic
reticulum in a reaction catalyzed by uridine diphosphoglucuronyltransferase (UDPGT).
Monoconjugates are formed first and predominate in the newborn. Diconjugates appear to be
formed at the cell membrane and may require the presence of the UDPGT tetramer.
Bilirubin conjugation is biologically critical because it transforms a water-insoluble
bilirubin molecule into a water-soluble molecule. Water-solubility allows conjugated
bilirubin to be excreted into bile. UDPGT activity is low at birth but increases to adult values
by age 4-8 weeks. In addition, certain drugs (phenobarbital, dexamethasone, clofibrate) can
be administered to increase UDPGT activity.
Infants who have Gilbert syndrome or who are compound heterozygotes for the Gilbert
promoter and structural mutations of the UDPGT1A1 coding region are at an increased risk of
significant hyperbilirubinemia. Interactions between the Gilbert genotype and hemolytic
anemias such as glucose-6-phosphatase dehydrogenase (G-6-PD) deficiency, hereditary
spherocytosis, or ABO hemolytic disease also appear to increase the risk of severe neonatal
Further, the observation of jaundice in some infants with hypertrophic pyloric
stenosis may also be related to a Gilbert-type variant. Genetic polymorphism for the organic
anion transporter protein OATP-2 correlates with a 3-fold increased risk for developing
marked neonatal jaundice. Combination of the OATP-2 gene polymorphism with a
variant UDPGT1A1 gene further increases this risk to 22-fold.
Studies also suggest that
polymorphisms in the gene for glutathione-S-transferase (ligandin) may contribute to higher
levels of total serum bilirubin.
Thus, some interindividual variations in the course and severity of neonatal jaundice
may be explained genetically. As the impact of these genetic variants is more fully
understood, development of a genetic test panel for risk of severe and/or prolonged neonatal
jaundice may become feasible
Once excreted into bile and transferred to the intestines, bilirubin is eventually reduced
to colorless tetrapyrroles by microbes in the colon. However, some deconjugation occurs in
the proximal small intestine through the action of B-glucuronidases located in the brush
border. This unconjugated bilirubin can be reabsorbed into the circulation, increasing the total
plasma bilirubin pool. This cycle of uptake, conjugation, excretion, deconjugation, and
reabsorption is termed 'enterohepatic circulation'. The process may be extensive in the
neonate, partly because nutrient intake is limited in the first days of life, prolonging the
intestinal transit time.
In mother-infant dyads who are experiencing difficulties with the establishment of
breast feeding, inadequate fluid and nutrient intake often leads to significant postnatal weight
loss in the infant. Such infants have an increased risk of developing jaundice through
increased enterohepatic circulation, as described above. This phenomenon is often referred to
as breastfeeding jaundice and is different from the breast milk jaundice described below.
Certain factors present in the breast milk of some mothers may also contribute to
increased enterohepatic circulation of bilirubin (breast milk jaundice). -glucuronidase may
play a role by uncoupling bilirubin from its binding to glucuronic acid, thus making it
available for reabsorption. Data suggest that the risk of breast milk jaundice is significantly
increased in infants who have genetic polymorphisms in the coding sequences of
the UDPGT1A1 or OATP2 genes. Although the mechanism that causes this phenomenon is
not yet agreed on, evidence suggests that supplementation with certain breast milk substitutes
may reduce the degree of breast milk jaundice (see Other therapies).
Neonatal jaundice, although a normal transitional phenomenon in most infants, can
occasionally become more pronounced. Blood group incompatibilities (eg, Rh, ABO) may
increase bilirubin production through increased hemolysis. Historically, Rh isoimmunization
was an important cause of severe jaundice, often resulting in the development of kernicterus.
Although this condition has become relatively rare in industrialized countries following the
use of Rh prophylaxis in Rh-negative women, Rh isoimmunization remains common in
developing countries.
Nonimmune hemolytic disorders (spherocytosis, G-6-PD deficiency) may also cause
increased jaundice, and increased hemolysis appears to have been present in some of the
infants reported to have developed kernicterus in the United States in the past 15-20 years.
The possible interaction between such conditions and genetic variants of the Gilbert
and UDPGT1A1 genes, as well as genetic variants of several other proteins and enzymes
involved in bilirubin metabolism, is discussed above.
These discoveries also highlight the challenges involved in the common use of the terms
physiologic jaundice and pathologic jaundice. Although physiologic jaundice is a helpful
concept from a didactic perspective, applying it to an actual neonate with jaundice is more
Consider the following metaphor: Think of total serum bilirubin in neonatal jaundice as a
mountain covered by a glacier. If a measurement of the height of the mountain is taken when
standing on the summit, the amount of rock and the amount of ice that comprise this
measurement is unclear. The same is true for many total serum bilirubin values obtained in
neonatal jaundice. An underpinning of physiologic processes and pathological process (eg,
Rhesus incompatibility) may clearly contribute to the measurement. However, how much of
the measured total value comes from each of these components is unclear. Also, because
genetic variants in bilirubin metabolism are only exceptionally pursued in the diagnostic
work-up of infants with jaundice, their possible contribution to the measured total serum
bilirubin is usually unknown.
United States
Neonatal hyperbilirubinemia is extremely common because almost every newborn develops
an unconjugated serum bilirubin level of more than 30 mol/L (1.8 mg/dL) during the first
week of life. Incidence figures are difficult to compare because authors of different studies do
not use the same definitions for significant neonatal hyperbilirubinemia or jaundice. In
addition, identification of infants to be tested depends on visual recognition of jaundice by
health care providers, which varies widely and depends both on observer attention and on
infant characteristics such as race and gestational age.

With the above caveats, epidemiologic studies provide a frame of reference for estimated
incidence. In 1986, Maisels and Gifford reported 6.1% of infants with serum bilirubin levels
of more than 220 mol/L (12.9 mg/dL).
In a 2003 study in the United States, 4.3% of
47,801 infants had total serum bilirubin levels in a range in which phototherapy was
recommended by the 1994 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines, and 2.9% had
values in a range in which the 1994 AAP guidelines suggest considering phototherapy.
some developing countries, the incidence of severe neonatal jaundice may be as much as 100
times higher than in more developed countries.

Incidence varies with ethnicity and geography. Incidence is higher in East Asians and
American Indians and lower in Africans. Greeks living in Greece have a higher incidence
than those of Greek descent living outside of Greece.
Incidence is higher in populations living at high altitudes. In 1984, Moore et al reported
32.7% of infants with serum bilirubin levels of more than 205 mol/L (12 mg/dL) at 3100 m
of altitude.

A study from Turkey reported significant jaundice in 10.5% of term infants and in 25.3% of
near-term infants.
Significant jaundice was defined according to gestational and postnatal
age and leveled off at 14 mg/dL (240 mol/L) at 4 days in preterm infants and 17 mg/dL (290
mol/L) in the term infants. Severe neonatal jaundice is 100-fold more frequent in Nigeria
than in industrialized countries.
In Denmark, 24 in 100.000 infants met exchange
transfusion criteria, while 9 in 100.000 developed acute bilirubin encephalopathy.

Studies seem to suggest that some of the ethnic variability in the incidence and severity of
neonatal jaundice may be related to differences in the distribution of the genetic variants in
bilirubin metabolism discussed above.
[1, 2]

The incidence of kernicterus in North America and Europe ranges from 0.4-2.7 cases per
100,000 births.
Death from physiologic neonatal jaundice per se should not occur. Death
from kernicterus may occur, particularly in countries with less developed medical care
systems. In one small study from rural Nigeria, 31% of infants with clinical jaundice tested
had G-6-PD deficiency, and 36% of the infants with G-6-PD deficiency died with presumed
kernicterus compared with only 3% of the infants with a normal G-6-PD screening test

The incidence of neonatal jaundice is increased in infants of East Asian, American Indian,
and Greek descent, although the latter appears to apply only to infants born in Greece and
thus may be environmental rather than ethnic in origin. African infants are affected less often
than non-African infants. For this reason, significant jaundice in an African infant merits a
closer evaluation of possible causes, including G-6-PD deficiency. In 1985, Linn et al
reported on a series in which 49% of East Asian, 20% of white, and 12% of black infants had
serum bilirubin levels of more than 170 mol/L (10 mg/dL).

The possible impact of genetic polymorphisms on ethnic variation in incidence and severity
should be recognized. Thus, in a study of Taiwanese infants, Huang et al reported that
neonates who carry the 211 and 388 variants in the UGT1A1 andOATP2 genes and who are
breastfed are at particularly high risk for severe hyperbilirubinemia.

Risk of developing significant neonatal jaundice is higher in male infants. This does not
appear to be related to bilirubin production rates, which are similar to those in female infants.
The risk of significant neonatal jaundice is inversely proportional to gestational age.

Presentation and duration of neonatal jaundice
Typically, presentation is on the second or third day of life.
Jaundice that is visible during the first 24 hours of life is likely to be nonphysiologic; further
evaluation is suggested.
Infants who present with jaundice after 3-4 days of life may also require closer scrutiny and
In infants with severe jaundice or jaundice that continues beyond the first 1-2 weeks of life,
the results of the newborn metabolic screen should be checked for galactosemia and
congenital hypothyroidism, further family history should be explored (see below), the infant's
weight curve should be evaluated, the mother's impressions as far as adequacy of
breastfeeding should be elicited, and the stool color should be assessed.
Family history
Previous sibling with jaundice in the neonatal period, particularly if the jaundice required
Other family members with jaundice or known family history of Gilbert syndrome
Anemia, splenectomy, or bile stones in family members or known heredity for hemolytic
Liver disease
History of pregnancy and delivery
Maternal illness suggestive of viral or other infection
Maternal drug intake
Delayed cord clamping
Birth trauma with bruising and/or fractures.
Postnatal history
Loss of stool color
Greater than average weight loss
Symptoms or signs of hypothyroidism
Symptoms or signs of metabolic disease (eg, galactosemia)
Exposure to total parental nutrition
Neonatal jaundice first becomes visible in the face and forehead. Identification is aided by
pressure on the skin, since blanching reveals the underlying color. Jaundice then gradually
becomes visible on the trunk and extremities. This cephalocaudal progression is well
described, even in 19th-century medical texts. Jaundice disappears in the opposite direction.
The explanation for this phenomenon is not well understood, but both changes in bilirubin-
albumin binding related to pH and differences in skin temperature and blood flow have been
[14, 15]
This phenomenon is claimed to be clinically useful because, independent of
other factors, visible jaundice in the lower extremities strongly suggests the need to check the
bilirubin level, either in the serum or noninvasively via transcutaneous bilirubinometry.
Recent work in the authors group (Tllfsrud et al, unpublished data) was not able to
confirm this so-called cephalocaudal progression of jaundice. Thus, when dermal jaundice
was measured noninvasively on the forehead, sternum, and symphysis, no cephalocaudal
trend was evident.
In most infants, yellow color is the only finding on physical examination. More intense
jaundice may be associated with drowsiness. Brainstem auditory-evoked potentials performed
at this time may reveal prolongation of latencies, decreased amplitudes, or both.
Overt neurologic findings, such as changes in muscle tone, seizures, or altered cry
characteristics, in a significantly jaundiced infant are danger signs and require immediate
attention to prevent kernicterus. In the presence of such symptoms or signs, effective
phototherapy should commence immediately without waiting for the laboratory test results
(see Laboratory Studies). The potential need for exchange transfusion should not preclude the
immediate initiation of phototherapy.
[16, 17]

Hepatosplenomegaly, petechiae, and microcephaly may be associated withhemolytic
anemia, sepsis, and congenital infections and should trigger a diagnostic evaluation directed
towards these diagnoses. Neonatal jaundice may be exacerbated in these situations.
Physiologic jaundice is caused by a combination of increased bilirubin production secondary
to accelerated destruction of erythrocytes, decreased excretory capacity secondary to low
levels of ligandin in hepatocytes, and low activity of the bilirubin-conjugating enzyme
uridine diphosphoglucuronyltransferase (UDPGT).
Pathologic neonatal jaundice occurs when additional factors accompany the basic
mechanisms described above. Examples include immune or nonimmune hemolytic
anemia, polycythemia, and the presence of bruising or other extravasation of blood.
Decreased clearance of bilirubin may play a role in breast feeding jaundice, breast milk
jaundice, and in several metabolic and endocrine disorders.
Risk factors include the following:
Race: Incidence is higher in East Asians and American Indians and is lower in
Africans/African Americans.
Geography: Incidence is higher in populations living at high altitudes. Greeks living in
Greece appear to have a higher incidence than those living outside of Greece.
Genetics and familial risk: Incidence is higher in infants with siblings who had significant
neonatal jaundice and particularly in infants whose older siblings were treated for neonatal
jaundice. Incidence is also higher in infants with mutations/polymorphisms in the genes that
code for enzymes and proteins involved in bilirubin metabolism, and in infants with
homozygous or heterozygous glucose-6-phosphatase dehydrogenase (G-6-PD) deficiency
and other hereditary hemolytic anemias. Combinations of such genetic variants appear to
exacerbate neonatal jaundice.
[18, 1, 19, 2]

Nutrition: Incidence is higher in infants who are breastfed or who receive inadequate
nutrition. The mechanism for this phenomenon may not be fully understood. However,
when inadequate feeding volume is involved, increased enterohepatic circulation of
bilirubin probably contributes to prolonged jaundice. Recent data have shown that breast
milk jaundice correlates with higher levels of epidermal growth factor, both in breast milk
and in infants' serum.
Data suggest that the difference between breastfed and formula-fed
infants may be less pronounced with some modern formulas. However, formulas containing
protein hydrolysates have been shown to promote bilirubin excretion.
Maternal factors: Infants of mothers with diabetes have higher incidence. Use of some
drugs may increase the incidence, whereas others decrease the incidence.
Birthweight and gestational age: Incidence is higher in premature infants and in infants with
low birthweight.
Congenital infection

Differential Diagnoses
Biliary Atresia
Breast Milk Jaundice
Cytomegalovirus Infection
Dubin-Johnson Syndrome
Duodenal Atresia
Galactose-1-Phosphate Uridyltransferase Deficiency (Galactosemia)
Hemolytic Disease of Newborn
Hepatitis B

Laboratory Studies
Bilirubin measurement may include the following:
Transcutaneous bilirubinometry can be performed using handheld devices that incorporate
sophisticated optical algorithms. Use of such devices has been shown to reduce the need for
blood sampling in infants with jaundice.
However, they cannot be used to monitor the
progress of phototherapy.

Transcutaneous bilirubinometry performs better than visual assessment. The latter is not a
reliable technique for estimating levels of bilirubin,
but the complete absence of jaundice
as judged by the eye in good lighting conditions has quite high accuracy as far as predicting
which infants are unlikely to develop high total serum bilirubin levels.

In infants with mild jaundice, transcutaneous bilirubinometry may be all that is needed to
assure that total bilirubin levels are safely below those requiring intervention.
In infants with moderate jaundice, transcutaneous bilirubinometry may be useful in
selecting patients who require phlebotomy or capillary blood sampling for serum bilirubin
In infants with extreme jaundice, transcutaneous bilirubinometry may be a useful tool to
fast-track such infants to rapid and aggressive therapy.
Usually, a total serum bilirubin level test is the only one required in an infant with moderate
jaundice who presents on the typical second or third day of life without a history and
physical findings suggestive of a pathologic process. Measurement of bilirubin fractions
(conjugated vs unconjugated) in serum is not usually required in infants who present as
described above. However, in infants who have hepatosplenomegaly, petechiae,
thrombocytopenia, or other findings suggestive of hepatobiliary disease, metabolic disorder,
or congenital infection, early measurement of bilirubin fractions is suggested. The same
may apply to infants who remain jaundiced beyond the first 7-10 days of life, and to infants
whose total serum bilirubin levels repeatedly rebound following treatment.
Additional studies may be indicated in the following situations:
Infants who present with jaundice on the first or after the third day of life
Infants who are anemic at birth
Infants who otherwise appear ill
Infants in whom serum bilirubin levels are elevated enough to trigger treatment
Infants in whom significant jaundice persists beyond the first 2 weeks of life
Infants in whom family, maternal, pregnancy, or case histories suggest the possibility of a
pathologic process
Infants in whom physical examination reveals findings not explained by simple physiologic
In addition to total serum bilirubin levels, other suggested studies may include the following,
particularly if the rate of rise or the absolute bilirubin concentration is approaching the need
for phototherapy:
Blood type and Rh determination in mother and infant
Direct antiglobulin test (DAT) in the infant (direct Coombs test)
Hemoglobin and hematocrit values
Serum albumin levels: This appears to be a useful adjunct in evaluating risk of toxicity
levels because albumin binds bilirubin in a ratio of 1:1 at the primary high-affinity binding
Nomogram for hour-specific bilirubin values: This is a useful tool for predicting, either
before or at the time of hospital discharge, which infants are likely to develop high serum
bilirubin values. Infants identified in this manner require close follow-up monitoring and
repeated bilirubin measurements. The predictive ability has been shown both for bilirubin
values measured in serum and for values measured transcutaneously. The nomogram has
also been shown to work well for DAT-positive infants with AB0 incompatibility.
positive DAT test result did not add any value to the clinical management of these infants
beyond that already obtained by an hour-specific bilirubin value plotted onto the
Measurement of end-tidal carbon monoxide in breath: End-tidal carbon monoxide in breath
(ETCO) may be used as an index of bilirubin production. Measurement of ETCO may assist
in identifying individuals with increased bilirubin production and, thus, at increased risk of
developing high bilirubin levels. An apparatus has been developed that makes measuring
ETCO simple (CoSense
ETCO Monitor, Capnia, Palo Alto, CA, USA).
Peripheral blood film for erythrocyte morphology
Reticulocyte count
Conjugated bilirubin levels: Measuring bilirubin fractions may be indicated in the
circumstances described above. Note that direct bilirubin measurements are often
inaccurate, are subject to significant interlaboratory and intralaboratory variation, and are
generally not a sensitive tool for diagnosingcholestasis unless repeated measurements
confirm the presence of an elevated conjugated bilirubin.
Liver function tests: Aspartate aminotransferase (ASAT or SGOT) andalanine
aminotransferase (ALAT or SGPT) levels are elevated in hepatocellular disease. Alkaline
phosphatase and -glutamyltransferase(GGT) levels are often elevated in cholestatic
disease. A -GT/ALAT ratio of more than 1 is strongly suggestive of biliary obstruction.
However, it does not distinguish between intrahepatic and extrahepatic cholestasis.
Tests for viral and/or parasitic infection: These may be indicated in infants with
hepatosplenomegaly, petechiae, thrombocytopenia, or other evidence of hepatocellular
Reducing substance in urine: This is a useful screening test for galactosemia, provided the
infant has received sufficient quantities of milk.
Blood gas measurements: The risk of bilirubin CNS toxicity is increased in acidosis,
particularly respiratory acidosis.
Bilirubin-binding tests: Although they are interesting research tools, these tests have not
found widespread use in clinical practice. Although elevated levels of unbound ("free")
bilirubin are associated with an increased risk of bilirubin encephalopathy, unbound
bilirubin is but one of several factors that mediate/modulate bilirubin toxicity.
Thyroid function tests

Imaging Studies
Ultrasonography: Ultrasonography of the liver and bile ducts is warranted in infants with
laboratory or clinical signs of cholestatic disease.
Radionuclide scanning: A radionuclide liver scan for uptake of hepatoiminodiacetic acid
(HIDA) is indicated if extrahepatic biliary atresia is suspected. At the author's institution,
patients are pretreated with phenobarbital 5 mg/kg/d for 3-4 days before performing the scan.

Other Tests
Auditory and visually evoked potentials are affected during ongoing significant jaundice;
however, no criteria have been established that allow extrapolation from evoked potential
findings to the risk of kernicterus. Data suggest that the probability of a bilateral "refer" on an
automated auditory brainstem response (AABR) study increases with unbound bilirubin
Because unbound bilirubin concentrations may be more closely correlated
with bilirubin neurotoxicity, a "refer" finding may indicate an increased risk of bilirubin
neurotoxicity. A "refer" AABR result obtained shortly after admission of an infant with
significant jaundice seems to argue for immediate and aggressive treatment.
Brainstem auditory-evoked potentials should be obtained in the aftermath of severe neonatal
jaundice to exclude sensorineural hearing loss. In physiologic jaundice, the auditory-evoked
potential returns to normal with the resolution of hyperbilirubinemia. However, in patients
with significant neonatal jaundice or kernicterus, the auditory-evoked potential and functional
hearing may remain abnormal.
The phonetic characteristics of the infant's cry are changed in significant neonatal jaundice;
however, computerized analyses of these phonetic characteristics are not used in clinical

Histologic Findings
Organs, including the brain, are yellow in any individual with significant jaundice; however,
the yellow color does not always indicate CNS toxicity. This distinction was not always
clearly understood in older descriptions of so-called "low-bilirubin kernicterus." At present,
this has contributed to confusion and uncertainty regarding therapeutic guidelines and
intervention levels.
See Kernicterus for a more detailed description.

Medical Care
Phototherapy, intravenous immune globulin (IVIG), and exchange transfusion are the most
widely used therapeutic modalities in infants with neonatal jaundice.
Phototherapy is the primary treatment in neonates with unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia.
This therapeutic principle was discovered rather serendipitously in England in the 1950s and
is now arguably the most widespread therapy of any kind (excluding prophylactic treatments)
used in newborns.
Phototherapy is effective because 3 reactions can occur when bilirubin is exposed to light, as
Initially, photooxidation was believed to be responsible for the beneficial effect of
phototherapy. However, although bilirubin is bleached through the action of light, the
process is slow and is now believed to contribute only minimally to the therapeutic effect of
Configurational isomerization is a very rapid process that changes some of the predominant
4Z,15Z bilirubin isomers to water-soluble isomers in which one or both of the
intramolecular bonds are opened (E,Z; Z,E; or E,E). In human infants, the 4Z,15E isomer
predominates, and, at equilibrium conditions, the isomer constitutes about 20-25% of
circulating bilirubin after a few hours of phototherapy.
This proportion is not
significantly influenced by the intensity of light. Data have shown that formation of
photoisomers is significant after as little as 15 minutes of phototherapy.
Recent studies
suggest that the initial rate of isomerization is inversely related to the hemoglobin level
(Mreihil K et al, unpublished data).
Structural isomerization consists of intramolecular cyclization, resulting in the formation of
lumirubin. This process is enhanced by increasing the intensity of light. During
phototherapy, lumirubin may constitute 2-6% of the total serum bilirubin concentration.
The photoisomers of bilirubin are excreted in bile and, to some extent, in urine. The half-life
of lumirubin in serum is much shorter than that in E isomers, and lumirubin is the primary
pigment found in bile during phototherapy.
Bear in mind when initiating phototherapy that lowering of the total serum bilirubin
concentration may be only part of the therapeutic benefit. Because photoisomers, by virtue of
their water-soluble nature, should not be able to cross the blood-brain barrier, phototherapy
may reduce the risk of bilirubin-induced neurotoxicity as soon as the lights are turned on. At
any given total serum bilirubin concentration, the presence of 20-25% of photoisomers means
that only 75-80% of the total bilirubin may be present in a form that can enter the brain.
Please note that although theoretically coherent, no experimental data support this
Phototherapy can be administered in a number of ways. To understand the benefits and
limitations of the various approaches, some basic principles regarding wavelength and types
of light are discussed below with comments and suggestions regarding each system.
First, wavelength must be considered. Bilirubin absorbs light primarily around 450-460 nm.
However, the ability of light to penetrate skin is also important; longer wavelengths penetrate
better. Thus, lamps with output predominantly in the blue region of the spectrum (460-490
nm) are probably most effective. In practice, light is used in the white, blue, turquoise, and
green wavelengths.
Second, previously a dose-response relationship was thought to exist between the amount of
irradiation and reduction in serum bilirubin up to an irradiation level of 30-40 W/cm
Many older phototherapy units deliver much less energy, some at or near the minimally
effective level, which appears to be approximately 6 W/cm
/nm. On the other hand, newer
phototherapy units, when properly configured and with the use of reflecting blankets and
curtains may deliver light energy above 40 W/cm
/nm. Recent data do not confirm that
there really is a saturation level.
Thus, the relationship between irradiance and the 24-hour
decrement in total serum bilirubin was linear up to 55 W/cm
, and with no evidence of a
saturation point.
Third, the energy delivered to the infant's skin decreases with increasing distance between the
infant and the light source. This distance should not be greater than 50 cm (20 in) and can be
less (down to 10 cm) provided the infant's temperature is monitored.
Fourth, the efficiency of phototherapy depends on the amount of bilirubin that is irradiated.
Irradiating a large skin surface area is more efficient than irradiating a small area, and the
efficiency of phototherapy increases with serum bilirubin concentration.
Fifth, the nature and character of the light source may affect energy delivery. Irradiation
levels using quartz halide spotlights are maximal at the center of the circle of light and
decrease sharply towards the perimeter of the circle. Large infants and infants who can move
away from the circle's center may receive less efficient phototherapy.
Although green light theoretically penetrates the skin better, it has not been shown
unequivocally to be more efficient in clinical use than blue or white light. Because green light
makes babies look sick and is unpleasant to work in, green light has not gained widespread
Blue fluorescent tubes are widely used for phototherapy. Narrow-spectrum blue lamps
(special blue) appear to work best, while ordinary blue fluorescent lamps are probably
equivalent to standard white daylight lamps. Blue lights may cause discomfort in hospital
staff members, which can be ameliorated by mixing blue and white tubes in the phototherapy
White (daylight) fluorescent tubes are less efficient than special blue lamps; however,
decreasing the distance between infants and lamps can compensate for the lower efficiency.
Use of reflecting materials also helps. Thus, in developing countries where the cost of special
blue lamps may be prohibitive, efficient phototherapy is accomplished with white lamps.
White quartz lamps are an integral part of some radiant warmers and incubators. They have a
significant blue component in the light spectrum. When used as spotlights, the energy field is
strongly focused towards the center, with significantly less energy delivered at the perimeter,
as discussed above.
Quartz lamps are also used in single or double banks of 3-4 bulbs attached to the overhead
heat source of some radiant warmers. The energy field delivered by these is much more
homogeneous than that of spotlights, and the energy output is reasonably high. However,
because the lamps are fixed to the overhead heater unit, the ability to increase energy delivery
by moving lights closer to infants is limited.
Fiberoptic lights are also used in phototherapy units. These units deliver high energy levels,
but because spectral power (ie, irradiance multiplied by the size of the irradiated area) is
related to the size of the lighted field, the smaller "pads" are less efficient than larger wrap-
around blankets. Drawbacks of fiberoptic phototherapy units may include noise from the fan
in the light source and a decrease of delivered energy with aging and/or breakage of the optic
fibers. Some new fiberoptic units now incorporate photodiodes as a light source. Advantages
of fiberoptic phototherapy include the following:
Low risk of overheating the infant
No need for eye shields
Ability to deliver phototherapy with the infant in a bassinet next to the mother's bed
Simple deployment for home phototherapy
The possibility of irradiating a large surface area when combined with conventional
overhead phototherapy units (double/triple phototherapy)
Light-emitting diode (LED) lights are found in some newer phototherapy units. Advantages
include low power consumption, low heat production, and a much longer life span of the
light-emitting units (20,000 hours) compared with older light sources. Blue LED lights have a
narrow spectral band of high-intensity light that overlaps the absorption spectrum of
bilirubin. Trials comparing LED phototherapy to other light sources were recently reviewed
by the Cochrane Collaboration and by Tridente and DeLuca. The authors of these reviews
conclude that the efficacy of LED lights in reducing total serum bilirubin levels is
comparable to that of conventional light sources (fluorescent or halogen lamps).
[29, 30]

"Double" and "triple" phototherapy, which implies the concurrent use of 2 or 3 phototherapy
units to treat the same patient, has often been used in the treatment of infants with very high
levels of serum bilirubin. The studies that appeared to show a benefit with this approach were
performed with old, relatively low-yield phototherapy units. Newer phototherapy units
provide much higher levels of irradiance. Whether double or triple phototherapy also confers
a benefit with the newer units, has not been tested in systematic trials. However, because
recent studies appear to rule out the existence of a saturation point (see discussion above), the
utility of double or triple phototherapy in extreme jaundice should not be discounted.
The purpose of treating neonatal jaundice is to avoid neurotoxicity. Thus, indications for
treatment have been based on clinical studies of infants who developed kernicterus. Historical
data, much of which was derived from infants with hemolytic jaundice, appeared to suggest
that total serum bilirubin levels greater than 350 mol/L (20 mg/dL) were associated with
increased risk of neurotoxicity, at least in full-term infants.
As treatment of premature infants became more widespread and increasingly successful
during the last half of the 20th century, autopsy findings and follow-up data suggested that
immature infants were at risk of bilirubin encephalopathy at lower total serum bilirubin levels
than mature infants. Treatment was initiated at lower levels for these infants.
Until the 1940s, a truly effective treatment was not available. At that time, exchange
transfusion was shown to be feasible and was subsequently used in the treatment of Rh-
immunized infants with severe anemia, hyperbilirubinemia, or hydrops. However, exchange
transfusion is not without risk for the infant, and only with the discovery of phototherapy did
neonatal jaundice start to become an indication for treatment on a wider scale. Once
phototherapy was shown to be an apparently innocuous treatment, lights were turned on at
lower serum bilirubin values than those that had triggered exchange transfusion.
Exchange transfusion became the second-line treatment when phototherapy failed to control
serum bilirubin levels. However, data have shown that treatment with IVIG in infants with
Rh or ABO isoimmunization can significantly reduce the need for exchange transfusions.
At the author's institution, a tertiary center where exchange transfusions used to be
frequent, currently only 0-2 such procedures per year are performed, and IVIG has replaced
exchange transfusion as the second-line treatment in infants with isoimmune jaundice.

Clearly, the scientific data on which current therapeutic guidelines are based have very
significant shortcomings. Unfortunately, because the endpoint of bilirubin neurotoxicity is
permanent brain damage, a randomized study to reassess the guidelines is ethically
In most neonatal wards, total serum bilirubin levels are used as the primary measure of risk
for bilirubin encephalopathy. Numerous people would prefer to add a test for serum albumin
at higher bilirubin levels because bilirubin entry into the brain, a sine qua non for bilirubin
encephalopathy, increases when the bilirubin-albumin ratio exceeds unity. Tests for bilirubin-
albumin binding or unbound bilirubin levels are used by some but have failed to gain
widespread acceptance. New analytical tools for measurement of unbound bilirubin have
greatly simplified the process, but the effect on clinical practice remains to be seen.
Numerous guidelines for the management of neonatal jaundice have been published, and
even more appear to be in local use without submission for critical review. In a survey
published in 1996, the author analyzed clinical practices in this field based on responses from
108 neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) worldwide.
The survey revealed a significant
disparity in guidelines.
The image below shows a box-and-whisker plot of the range of serum bilirubin values that
trigger phototherapy and exchange transfusion, respectively, in these NICUs. Evidently, an
infant might receive an exchange transfusion in one NICU for a serum bilirubin level that
would not trigger phototherapy in many other NICUs. This disparity illustrates how difficult
it has been to translate clinical data into sensible treatment guidelines.
The graph represents indications for phototherapy and
exchange transfusion in infants (with a birthweight of 3500 g) in 108 neonatal ICUs. The left
panel shows the range of indications for phototherapy, whereas the right panel shows the
indications for exchange transfusion. Numbers on the vertical axes are serum bilirubin
concentrations in mg/dL (lateral) and mmol/L (middle). In the left panel, the solid line refers
to the current recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for low-risk
infants, the line consisting of long dashes (- - - - -) represents the level at which the AAP
recommends phototherapy for infants at intermediate risk, and the line with short dashes (-----
) represents the suggested intervention level for infants at high risk. In the right panel, the
dotted line (......) represents the AAP suggested intervention level for exchange transfusion in
infants considered at low risk, the line consisting of dash-dot-dash (-.-.-.-.) represents the
suggested intervention level for exchange transfusion in infants at intermediate risk, and the
line consisting of dash-dot-dot-dash (-..-..-..-) represents the suggested intervention level for
infants at high risk. Intensive phototherapy is always recommended while preparations for
exchange transfusion are in progress. The box-and-whisker plots show the following values:
lower error bar = 10th percentile; lower box margin = 25th percentile; line transecting box =
median; upper box margin = 75th percentile; upper error bar = 90th percentile; and lower and
upper diamonds = 5th and 95th percentiles, respectively.
In 2004, the AAP published new guidelines for the management of hyperbilirubinemia in
healthy full-term newborns.
These guidelines have been plotted on the image above.
The 2004 AAP guidelines represent a significant change from the 1994 guidelines.
the emphasis on preventive action and risk evaluation is much stronger. An algorithm aids in
the assessment of risk and the decision about further management and follow-up (see the
image below). The committee that wrote the guidelines has carefully assessed the strength of
the scientific evidence on which the guidelines are based.
Algorithm for the management of jaundice in the newborn
Practitioners in North America are advised to follow the 2004 AAP guidelines. Although the
2004 AAP guidelines do not provide guidance for treatment of jaundice in the smaller and
more premature/immature infants, a group of US experts recently published their suggestions
for management of jaundice in preterm infants younger than 35 weeks' gestation.

Clinicians in different ethnic or geographic regions should consider tailoring these guidelines
as pertinent to their own populations and must consider factors that are unique to their
medical practice settings. Such factors may include racial characteristics, prevalence of
congenital hemolytic disorders, prevalence of genetic variants, and environmental concerns.
Such adaptation of guidelines should also take into consideration how healthcare delivery
systems are organized, as this is likely affect both in-hospital delivery of care as well as
follow-up. At present, the wisest course of action may be to apply local guidelines, assuming
that these have been successful in the prevention of kernicterus..
With this background and the clear understanding that this is meant only as an example, the
image below shows the chart currently in use in all pediatric departments in Norway. These
guidelines are the result of a 2006 consensus in the Neonatal Subgroup of the Norwegian
Pediatric Society. The similarities between the Norwegian chart and the 2004 AAP guidelines
are apparent.
Guidelines for management of neonatal jaundice currently in use
in all pediatric departments in Norway. The guidelines were based on previously used charts
and were created through a consensus process in the Neonatal Subgroup of the Norwegian
Pediatric Society. These guidelines were adopted as national at the fall meeting of the
Norwegian Pediatric Society. The reverse side of the chart contains explanatory notes to help
the user implement the guidelines. A separate information leaflet for parents was also created.
The Norwegian chart suggests intervention limits for premature/immature infants. For infants
of less than 1000 gram birthweight, these guidelines propose starting phototherapy at 100
mol/L (6 mg/dL) at age 24 hours, increasing gradually to 150 mol/L (8.8 mg/dL) at age 4
days, and remaining steady thereafter at that level. This compares with a range of 85 mol/L
(5 mg/dL) to 171 mol/L (10 mg/dL) used in a Neonatal Research Network (NRN)
phototherapy trial in infants of less than 1000 gram birthweight. The intervention level
depended on postnatal age and whether the infant was allocated to conservative or aggressive

In a post hoc analysis of the NRN data, which compared infants who had not received any
phototherapy with those who had received such treatment, the subgroup of infants with
birthweights of 501-750 grams who had not received any phototherapy had a significantly
higher rate of mental developmental index of less than 50.
However, it should be noted that
in the original trial analysis, mortality in the aggressive phototherapy group at 501- to 750-g
birthweight was 5 percentage points higher than in the conservative group, which, although
not significant with the statistical approach chosen for analysis, appeared to offset the
possible developmental gain in survivors.
Recently these data were reanalyzed using
Bayesian statistics
and showed that aggressive phototherapy significantly increased the
risk of death in the sickest (being on mechanical ventilation at 24 h) and smallest infants
(750 g birthweight), while at the same time reducing impairment/severe impairment.
Key points in the practical execution of phototherapy include maximizing energy delivery
and the available surface area. Also consider the following:
The infant should be naked except for diapers (use these only if deemed absolutely
necessary and cut them to minimum workable size), and the eyes should be covered to
reduce risk of retinal damage.
Check the distance between the infant's skin and the light source. With fluorescent lamps,
the distance should be no greater than 50 cm (20 in). This distance may be reduced down to
10-20 cm (4-8 in) if temperature homeostasis is monitored to reduce the risk of overheating.
Note that this does not apply to quartz lamps.
Cover the inside of the bassinet with reflecting material; white linen works well. Hang a
white curtain around the phototherapy unit and bassinet. These simple expedients can
multiply energy delivery by several fold.
When using spotlights, ensure that the infant is placed at the center of the circle of light,
since photoenergy drops off towards the circle's perimeter. Observe the infant closely to
ensure that the infant doesn't move away from the high-energy area. Spotlights are probably
more appropriate for small premature infants than for larger near-term infants.
Older data suggested that phototherapy was associated with increased insensible water loss;
therefore, many clinicians have routinely added a certain percentage to the infant's
estimated basic fluid requirements. Newer data suggest that if temperature homeostasis is
maintained, fluid loss is not significantly increased by phototherapy. At the author's
institution, routine fluid supplementation for infants under phototherapy has not been used
for more than a decade and is not recommended in national guidelines. Rather, the infant is
monitored for weight loss, urine output, and urine specific gravity. Fluid intake is adjusted
accordingly. In infants who are orally fed, the preferred fluid is milk because it serves as a
vehicle to transport bilirubin out of the gut.
Timing of follow-up serum bilirubin testing must be individualized. In infants admitted with
extreme serum bilirubin values (>500 mol/L or 30 mg/dL), monitoring should occur every
hour or every other hour. Reductions in serum bilirubin values of 85 mol/L/h (5 mg/dL/h)
have been documented under such circumstances. In infants with more moderate elevations
of serum bilirubin, monitoring every 6-12 hours is probably adequate.
Expectations regarding efficacy of phototherapy must be tailored to the circumstances. In
infants in whom serum bilirubin concentrations are still rising, a significant reduction of the
rate of increase may be satisfactory. In infants in whom serum bilirubin concentrations are
close to their peak, phototherapy should result in measurable reductions in serum bilirubin
levels within a few hours. In general, the higher the starting serum bilirubin concentration,
the more dramatic the initial rate of decline.
Discontinuation of phototherapy is a matter of judgment, and individual circumstances must
be taken into consideration. In practice, phototherapy is discontinued when serum bilirubin
levels fall 25-50 mol/L (1.5-3 mg/dL) below the level that triggered the initiation of
phototherapy. Serum bilirubin levels may rebound after treatment has been discontinued,
and follow-up tests should be obtained within 6-12 hours after discontinuation.
Indications for prophylactic phototherapy are debatable. Phototherapy probably serves no
purpose in an infant who is not clinically jaundiced. In general, the lower the serum
bilirubin level, the less efficient the phototherapy. It seems more rational to apply truly
effective phototherapy once serum (and skin) bilirubin has reached levels at which photons
may do some good.
Wherever phototherapy is offered as a therapeutic modality, a device for measuring the
irradiance delivered by the equipment used should be readily at hand. This assists in
configuring the phototherapy set-up to deliver optimal efficiency. Some recommend this
routinely, every time phototherapy is initiated, and use this as a tool to focus staff attention
on maximizing energy delivery.
Generally, phototherapy is very safe and may have no serious long-term effects in neonates;
however, the following adverse effects and complications have been noted:
Insensible water loss may occur, but data suggest that this issue is not as important as
previously believed. Rather than instituting blanket increases of fluid supplements to all
infants receiving phototherapy, the author recommends fluid supplementation tailored to the
infant's individual needs, as measured through evaluation of weight curves, urine output,
urine specific gravity, and fecal water loss.
As noted above, a reanalysis of the NRN trial of aggressive versus conservative
phototherapy in premature infants of less than 1000 g birthweight showed that mortality
was increased in the subgroup of sick 501- to 750-g birthweight infants receiving
aggressive' phototherapy.
In a recent recommendation for treatment of
hyperbilirubinemia in premature infants younger than 35 weeks gestation, the authors
propose that initial irradiance should be reduced in the most vulnerable infants.
as pointed out in an editorial to this paper, extant data seem to be more compatible with the
interpretation that duration of phototherapy is more dangerous than irradiance
Thus, it may be argued that phototherapy should be short and efficient rather than
less efficient and of longer duration. This question is still open to interpretation and
Phototherapy may be associated with loose stools. Increased fecal water loss may create a
need for fluid supplementation.
Retinal damage has been observed in some animal models during intense phototherapy. In
an NICU environment, infants exposed to higher levels of ambient light were found to have
an increased risk of retinopathy. Therefore, covering the eyes of infants undergoing
phototherapy with eye patches is routine. Care must be taken lest the patches slip and leave
the eyes uncovered or occlude one or both nares.
The combination of hyperbilirubinemia and phototherapy can produce DNA-strand
breakage and other effects on cellular genetic material. In vitro and animal data have not
demonstrated any implication for treatment of human neonates. However, because most
hospitals use (cut-down) diapers during phototherapy, the issue of gonad shielding may be
Skin blood flow is increased during phototherapy, but this effect is less pronounced in
modern servocontrolled incubators. However, redistribution of blood flow may occur in
small premature infants. An increased incidence ofpatent ductus arteriosus (PDA) has been
reported in these circumstances. The appropriate treatment of PDA has been reviewed.

Hypocalcemia appears to be more common in premature infants under phototherapy lights.
This has been suggested to be mediated by altered melatonin metabolism. Concentrations of
certain amino acids in total parenteral nutrition solutions subjected to phototherapy may
deteriorate. Shield total parenteral nutrition solutions from light as much as possible.
Regular maintenance of the equipment is required because accidents have been reported,
including burns resulting from a failure to replace UV filters.
Intravenous immune globulin
In recent years, IVIG has been used for numerous immunologically mediated conditions. In
the presence of Rh, ABO, or other blood group incompatibilities that cause significant
neonatal jaundice, IVIG has been shown to significantly reduce the need for exchange
transfusions. However, it must be recognized that some studies have failed to show efficacy.
The reasons for this discrepancy have not been explained. One can speculate that differences
in the origin and characteristics of the IVIG preparation could play a role. If one particular
IVIG preparation appears not to work, it may be worthwhile to try IVIG from a different
The 2004 AAP guidelines suggest a dose range for IVIG of 500-1000 mg/kg.

The author routinely uses 500 mg/kg infused intravenously over a period of 2 hours for Rh or
ABO incompatibility when the total serum bilirubin levels approach or surpass the exchange
transfusions limits. The author has, on occasion, repeated the dose 2-3 times. In most cases,
when this is combined with intensive phototherapy, avoiding exchange transfusion is
possible. In the authors' institution, with about 750 NICU admissions per year, the use of
exchange transfusions has decreased to 0-2 per year following the implementation of IVIG
therapy for Rh and ABO isoimmunization.
The author does not use IVIG in the presence
ofhydrops. Anecdotally, IVIG appears less likely to be successful when the infant is anemic
(Hb < 10 g/dL).
Exchange transfusion
Exchange transfusion is indicated for avoiding bilirubin neurotoxicity when other therapeutic
modalities have failed or are not sufficient. In addition, the procedure may be indicated in
infants with erythroblastosis who present with severe anemia, hydrops, or both, even in the
absence of high serum bilirubin levels.
Exchange transfusion was once a common procedure. A significant proportion was
performed in infants with Rh isoimmunization. Immunotherapy in Rh-negative women at risk
for sensitization has significantly reduced the incidence of severe Rh erythroblastosis.
Therefore, the number of infants requiring exchange transfusion is now much smaller, and
even large NICUs may perform only a few procedures per year. ABO incompatibility has
become the most frequent cause of hemolytic disease in industrialized countries.
Early exchange transfusion has usually been performed because of anemia (cord hemoglobin
< 11 g/dL), elevated cord bilirubin level (>70 mol/L or 4.5 mg/dL), or both. A rapid rate of
increase in the serum bilirubin level (>15-20 mol/L /h or 1 mg/dL/h) was an indication for
exchange transfusion, as was a more moderate rate of increase (>8-10 mol/L/h or 0.5
mg/dL/h) in the presence of moderate anemia (11-13 g/dL).
The serum bilirubin level that triggered an exchange transfusion in infants with hemolytic
jaundice was 350 mol/L (20 mg/dL) or a rate of increase that predicted this level or higher.
Strict adherence to the level of 20 mg/dL has been jocularly referred to as vigintiphobia (fear
of 20).
Currently, most experts encourage an individualized approach, recognizing that exchange
transfusion is not a risk-free procedure, that effective phototherapy converts 15-25% of
bilirubin to nontoxic isomers, and that transfusion of a small volume of packed red cells may
correct anemia. Administration of IVIG (500 mg/kg) has been shown to reduce red cell
destruction and to limit the rate of increase of serum bilirubin levels in infants with Rh and
ABO isoimmunization (see above).
Current AAP guidelines distinguish between 3 risk categories: low, intermediate, and
These correspond to 3 levels of suggested intervention, which increase from birth and
plateau at age 4 days. Naturally, intervention levels associated with exchange transfusion are
higher than those for phototherapy. Intensive phototherapy is strongly recommended in
preparation for an exchange transfusion. In fact, intensive phototherapy should be performed
on an emergency basis in any infant admitted for pronounced jaundice; do not await
laboratory test results in these cases. Phototherapy has minimal side effects in this scenario,
whereas the waiting period for laboratory test results and blood for exchange can take hours
and could constitute the difference between intact survival and survival with kernicterus. If
phototherapy does not significantly lower serum bilirubin levels, exchange transfusion should
be performed.
Many believe that hemolytic jaundice represents a greater risk for neurotoxicity than
nonhemolytic jaundice, although the reasons for this belief are not intuitively obvious,
assuming that total serum bilirubin levels are equal. In animal studies, bilirubin entry into or
clearance from the brain was not affected by the presence of hemolytic anemia.
The technique of exchange transfusion, including adverse effects and complications, is
discussed extensively elsewhere. For more information, please consult Hemolytic Disease of
Management of infants with extreme jaundice
Numerous cases have been reported in which infants have been readmitted to hospitals with
extreme jaundice. In some cases, significant delays have occurred between the time the infant
was first seen by medical personnel and the actual commencement of effective therapy.

Any infant who returns to the hospital with significant jaundice within the first 1-2 weeks of
birth should be immediately triaged with measurement of transcutaneous bilirubin. High
values should result in immediate initiation of treatment. If such a measuring device is not
available, or if the infant presents with any kind of neurological symptoms, the infant should
be put in maximally efficient phototherapy as an emergency procedure, preferably by fast-
tracking the infant to a NICU. Waiting for laboratory results is not necessary before
instituting such therapy because no valid contraindications to phototherapy are possible in
this scenario. Plans for an exchange transfusion do not constitute an argument for delaying or
not performing phototherapy. Immediate benefit may be obtained within minutes, as soon as
conversion of bilirubin into water-soluble photoisomers is measurable (see discussion above).
The need for intravenous hydration in such infants has been discussed. In the absence of
clinical signs of dehydration, no evidence suggests that overhydration is helpful. If the infant
is dehydrated, hydration should be given as clinically indicated. However, if the infant is able
to tolerate oral feeding, oral hydration with a breast milk substitute is likely to be superior to
intravenous hydration because it reduces enterohepatic circulation of bilirubin and helps
"wash" bilirubin out of the bowel.
Every hospital in which babies are delivered, or which has an emergency department in
which infants may be seen, should develop a protocol and triage algorithm for rapid
evaluation and management of jaundiced infants. The objective of such a protocol should be
rapid recognition of risk severity and reduction in the time to initiate appropriate treatment.
Infants admitted with signs of intermediate to advanced acute bilirubin encephalopathy
(ABE) are in urgent need of treatment because reversibility may be possible, even in such
cases. The term "crash-cart approach" has been used as a recommendation in such cases. The
author, together with other European colleagues, has published a series that included 6
patients with signs of ABE who were urgently managed and appear to have escaped
neurologic sequelae.

In a review of the Kernicterus Registry, full recovery was noted in 8 of 11 cases treated with
a crash-cart approach, which included effective phototherapy plus exchange transfusion; full
recovery was not noted in cases in which delays had occurred.
In the Kernicterus Registry,
reversal was not observed in cases treated with only phototherapy; the authors strongly
recommend that exchange transfusion be performed in such cases.
In the European study,
reversal was also seen in 2 patients who did not receive exchange transfusion.
In one of
these cases, IVIG was used in lieu of exchange transfusion; in the other case, intensive
phototherapy and intravenous albumin were used.
Other therapies
In infants with breast milk jaundice, interruption of breastfeeding for 24-48 hours and feeding
with breast milk substitutes often helps to reduce the bilirubin level. Evidence suggests that
the simple expedient of supplementing feeds of breast milk with 5 mL of a breast milk
substitute reduces the level and duration of jaundice in breast milkfed infants. Because this
latter intervention causes less interference with the establishment of the breastfeeding dyad,
the author prefers to use this approach rather than complete interruption of breast feeding in
most cases.
Oral bilirubin oxidase can reduce serum bilirubin levels, presumably by reducing
enterohepatic circulation; however, its use has not gained wide popularity. The same may be
said for agar or charcoal feeds, which act by binding bilirubin in the gut. Bilirubin oxidase is
not available as a drug, and for this reason, its use outside an approved research protocol
probably is proscribed in many countries.
Prophylactic treatment of Rh-negative women with Rh immunoglobulin has significantly
decreased the incidence and severity of Rh-hemolytic disease.

Surgical Care
Surgical care is not indicated in infants with physiologic neonatal jaundice. Surgical therapy
is indicated in infants in whom jaundice is caused by bowel or external bile duct atresia.

For infants with physiologic neonatal jaundice, no consultation is required.
Gastroenterologists and surgeons may be consulted regarding infants with jaundice resulting
from hepatobiliary or bowel disease.
Breastfeeding concerns associated with neonatal jaundice are as follows:
Incidence and duration of jaundice have increased as breastfeeding has become more
popular. The factors in breast milk that contribute to this phenomenon are unclear. In
selected infants, interruption of breastfeeding and its replacement for 24-48 hours by a
breast milk substitute may be indicated. This decision should always be discussed in person
with the mother before implementation. The author's practice is now to first perform a trial
of 5 mL of a hydrolyzed formula given after each breast meal. The author typically tries this
for at least 1-2 days, with follow-up of bilirubin values. Only if this is unsuccessful does the
author occasionally attempt interruption of breast feeding.
With increasing emphasis on breastfeeding, some new mothers may have difficulty
admitting (even to themselves) to a lack of success in establishing lactation. Occasionally,
infants of breastfeeding mothers are admitted to hospitals with severe jaundice. They
typically weigh significantly less than their birthweight at a time when they should have
regained and surpassed that weight. Presumably, the process is one of increased
enterohepatic circulation, as bilirubin is left longer in the proximal gut for lack of milk to
bind it and carry it onward and out. The author refers to this condition as lack-of-breast-
milk jaundice. These infants may respond dramatically to phototherapy plus oral feedings of
milk ad libitum.

Medication Summary
Medications are not usually administered in infants with physiologic neonatal jaundice.
However, in certain instances, phenobarbital, an inducer of hepatic bilirubin metabolism, has
been used to enhance bilirubin metabolism. Several studies have shown that phenobarbital is
effective in reducing mean serum bilirubin values during the first week of life. Phenobarbital
may be administered prenatally in the mother or postnatally in the infant.
In populations in which the incidence of neonatal jaundice or kernicterus is high, this type of
pharmacologic treatment may warrant consideration. However, concerns surround the long-
term effects of phenobarbital on these children. Therefore, this treatment is probably not
justified in populations with a low incidence of severe neonatal jaundice. Other drugs can
induce bilirubin metabolism, but lack of adequate safety data prevents their use outside
research protocols.
Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) at 500 mg/kg has been shown to significantly reduce the
need for exchange transfusions in infants with isoimmune hemolytic disease.
mechanism is unknown but may be related to the way the immune system handles red cells
that have been coated by antibodies. Published experience is still somewhat limited, but
administration of immunoglobulin does not appear to be likely associated with greater risks
for the infant than an exchange transfusion. Published data regarding efficacy are varied,
perhaps suggesting that the specific origin and characteristics of the IVIG preparation may
play a role. Although speculative, lack of efficacy of a specific IVIG product may warrant
trial of one from a different manufacturer or batch.
A new therapy currently under development consists of inhibition of bilirubin production
through blockage of heme oxygenase. This can be achieved through the use of metal
mesoporphyrins and protoporphyrins. Apparently, heme can be directly excreted through the
bile; thus, inhibition of heme oxygenase does not result in accumulation of unprocessed
heme. This approach may virtually eliminate neonatal jaundice as a clinical problem.
However, before the treatment can be applied on a wide scale, important questions regarding
the long-term safety of the drugs must be answered. Also, in light of data suggesting that
bilirubin may play an important role as a free radical quencher, a more complete
understanding of this putative role for bilirubin is required before wholesale inhibition of its
production is contemplated.