New research shows that newborn jaundice might actually help protect a baby’s health even as it scares the bejeezus out of first-time parents.
Everybody knows what jaundice is--it’s the bizarre yellowish skin tone that sometimes afflicts a human body. It’s caused by high bilirubin levels in the blood, which occur when red blood cells break down.
There can be many reasons why someone becomes jaundiced, ranging from the benign (like having recently had a huge bruise) to the outright deadly (such as liver failure). However, the condition is still relatively rare since when everything is working correctly, bilirubin levels in the blood remain fairly small.
Except in newborns. Around 60% of full-term babies and up to 80% of premature babies will show signs of jaundice in their first month of life. This will freak out first-time parents who may think there is something very seriously wrong with their little ones, but in actual fact, it’s just a regular thing that happens to most babies.
While still in the womb, red blood cells are broken down by the placenta. After the baby is born, the job of breaking down old blood cells gets taken over by the liver. However, the switch between placenta and liver isn’t often a smooth one, so bilirubin levels will spike during the transition. This causes newborn jaundice.
There’s another reason why babies might become jaundiced, and that’s infection. If the baby is showing other symptoms like coughing or a runny nose, then there might be a real concern that requires medical observation.
However, new research is showing that newborn jaundice might not be a symptom of a disease, but actually, the body trying to fight back.
According to a recent study published in the journal Nature, researchers from the University of Aberdeen found that elevated bilirubin levels inhibited the growth of bacteria in the body. They now posit that newborn jaundice might serve as a means of fighting against infection early on in life before the body has developed antibodies to combat viruses and bacteria.
As usual, more research is needed, but this may convince doctors to treat newborn jaundice less as a problem and more like a natural defense mechanism of infants.