Newborns with phenylketonuria initially don't have any symptoms. Without treatment, babies usually develop signs of PKU within a few months.

PKU symptoms can be mild or severe and may include:

  • Intellectual disability (formerly called mental retardation)
  • Delayed development
  • Behavioral, emotional and social problems
  • Psychiatric disorders
  • Neurological problems that may include seizures
  • Hyperactivity
  • Poor bone strength
  • Skin rashes (eczema)
  • A musty odor in the child's breath, skin or urine, caused by too much phenylalanine in the body
  • Fair skin and blue eyes, because phenylalanine cannot transform into melanin — the pigment responsible for hair and skin tone
  • Abnormally small head (microcephaly)

Severity varies

The most severe form of the disorder is called classic PKU. Children and adults with less severe forms of PKU, in which the faulty enzyme retains some function, have a smaller risk of significant brain damage. But most children with these forms of the disorder still require a special diet to prevent intellectual disability and other complications.

Pregnancy and PKU

A woman who has PKU and becomes pregnant is at risk of another form of the condition called maternal PKU. If a woman doesn't follow the special PKU diet before and during pregnancy, blood phenylalanine levels can become high and harm the developing fetus or cause a miscarriage. Even women with mild PKU may place their unborn children at risk by not following the PKU diet.

Babies born to mothers with high phenylalanine levels don't often inherit PKU. However, they can have serious consequences if the level of phenylalanine is high in the mother's blood. Complications at birth may include:

  • Intellectual disability
  • Low birth weight
  • Delayed development
  • Abnormally small head
  • Heart defects
  • Behavioral problems

When to see a doctor

Seek medical advice in these situations:

  • Newborns. If routine newborn screening tests show that your baby may have PKU, your child's doctor will want to start dietary treatment right away to prevent long-term problems.
  • Women of childbearing years. It's especially important for women with a history of PKU to see a doctor and maintain the PKU diet before becoming pregnant and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of high blood phenylalanine levels harming their unborn babies.
  • Adults. Adults with PKU continue to receive care across their life span. Older adults with PKU who may have stopped the PKU diet in their teens may benefit from a visit with their doctors. Returning to the diet may improve mental functioning and behavior and slow damage to the central nervous system in adults with high phenylalanine levels.
Nov. 26, 2014

You Are ... The Campaign for Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit organization. Make a difference today.