Preventing Carotenemia

What causes carotenemia?  You are what you eat, and sometimes it shows. If you've ever seen pink flamingoes, you might be surprised to know that their normal color is white. High levels of beta carotene in the shrimp they feed on gives them their characteristic pink color. This form of carotenemia, a change in color caused by the consumption of foods rich in beta carotene, is very desirable in flamingoes, as it shows that they're getting a good diet.

When the same thing happens to your baby, it can be a cause for alarm. Carotenemia in babies can turn the skin a yellowish or orange color. It's usually nothing serious, and fortunately we outgrow the problem, otherwise there would be a lot of orange, green and blue teenagers walking around.

What Causes Carotenemia?
Carotenemia is caused by eating lots of foods with carotene, which is a pigment that gives carrots their orange color. Carotene is good for you; the body converts it to Vitamin A, it helps the immune system and it's good for eye health. Beta carotene, found in shellfish, has similar health benefits.

Sources of carotene include carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, yams, pumpkins, corn, spinach and broccoli. Shrimp and salmon are popular sources of beta carotene, and carotene can also be found in cantaloupes and apricots. Farm-raised chickens can be a source if they're fed marigolds to give their skin a stronger yellow color, and some farm-raised salmon are given additional beta carotene to make their skin a deep pink.

Carotene is readily absorbed into the bloodstream, especially when it's cooked and pureed, as it is in most baby foods. An abundance of carotene in the blood leads to the palms, nose and soles of the feet turning yellow or orange. The condition will sometimes appear in adults who consume large quantities of carrot juice or carotene-rich foods, though it is most frequently associated with infants.

Is Carotenemia Dangerous?
Apart from the change in skin color, which is purely cosmetic, carotenemia is temporary and not a source for alarm. However, if you notice a yellowing or other change in the color of the skin, you should schedule an appointment with your pediatrician immediately to make sure that carotenemia is the cause. Yellow or orange skin can also be a symptom of jaundice, which could be a sign of serious problems with the liver, gall bladder or pancreas.

Note that in newborns, up to around two weeks of age, neonatal jaundice is common as the liver adjusts to filtering the blood. Signs of jaundice or skin discoloration in older infants, particularly those starting on solid foods, should be referred to your pediatrician.

Controlling Carotenemia
The easiest way to prevent carotenemia is to limit the foods with carotene that your baby eats. You don't want to skip them completely, because carotene is necessary for healthy development.

If your baby develops carotenemia, it's usually temporary and will clear up as additional foods are introduced. You can speed up the process, somewhat, by reducing excessive amounts of Vitamin A and carotene in foods. Check labels on baby foods and avoid those that contain high levels of carotene and Vitamin A, as well as those that have rich orange or pink colors, which could be a sign of added pigment.

Patience is a key. It can take a month or more for the discoloration to fade away completely.

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