Rh-induced hemolytic disease of the newborn; Erythroblastosis fetalis
Rh incompatibility is a condition that develops when a pregnant woman has Rh-negative blood and the baby in her womb has Rh-positive blood.
During pregnancy, red blood cells from the unborn baby can cross into the mother's blood through the placenta.
If the mother is Rh-negative, her immune system treats Rh-positive fetal cells as if they were a foreign substance. The mother's body makes antibodies against the fetal blood cells. These antibodies may cross back through the placenta into the developing baby. They destroy the baby's circulating red blood cells.
When red blood cells are broken down, they make bilirubin. This causes an infant to become yellow (jaundiced). The level of bilirubin in the infant's bloodstream may range from mild to dangerously high.
Firstborn infants are often not affected unless the mother had past miscarriages or abortions that sensitized her immune system. This because it takes time for the mother to develop antibodies. However, all children she has later who are also Rh-positive may be affected.
Rh incompatibility develops only when the mother is Rh-negative and the infant is Rh-positive. This problem has become less common in places that provide good prenatal care. This is because special immune globulins called RhoGHAM are routinely used.
Rh incompatibility can cause symptoms ranging from very mild to deadly. In its mildest form, Rh incompatibility causes the destruction of red blood cells. There are no other effects.
After birth, the infant may have:
Rh incompatibility can be prevented with the use of RhoGAM. Therefore, prevention remains the best treatment. Treatment of an infant who is already affected depends on the severity of the condition.
Infants with mild Rh incompatibility may be treated with phototherapy using bilirubin lights. IV immune globulin may be also be used. For infants severely affected, an exchange transfusion of blood may be needed. This is to decrease the levels of bilirubin in the blood.
Full recovery is expected for mild Rh incompatibility.
Complications may include:
Call your health care provider if you think or know you are pregnant and have not yet seen a provider.
Rh incompatibility is almost completely preventable. Rh-negative mothers should be followed closely by their providers during pregnancy.
Special immune globulins, called RhoGAM, are now used to prevent RH incompatibility in mothers who are Rh-negative.
If the father of the infant is Rh-positive or if his blood type is not known, the mother is given an injection of RhoGAM during the second trimester. If the baby is Rh-positive, the mother will get a second injection within a few days after delivery.
These injections prevent the development of antibodies against Rh-positive blood. However, women with Rh-negative blood type must get injections:
Alcock GS, Liley H. Immunoglobulin infusion for isoimmune haemolytic jaundice in neonates. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2002, Issue 3. PMID: 12137687
Kapolan M, Wkong RJ, Sibley E, Stevenson DK. Neonatal jaundice and liver diseases. In: Martin RJ, Fanaroff AA, Walsh MC, eds. Fanaroff and Martin's Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2015:chap 100.
Maheshwari A, Carlo WA. Blood disorders. In: Kliegman RM. Stanton BF, St. Geme III JW, Schor NF, Behrman RE, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 97.2.
Last reviewed on: 2/5/2015
Reviewed by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.