Obstetric Cholestasis

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Obstetric Cholestasis written for patients

Also known as intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), obstetric cholestasis is a multifactorial condition affecting 0.7% of pregnancies (1.2-1.5% of women of Indian-Asian or Pakistani descent). It is characterised by abnormal LFTs (particularly aspartate transaminase (AST) and alanine aminotransferase (ALT) elevation) and an intense pruritus in the absence of skin rash and any other cause for the abnormal LFTs. The abnormal LFTs resolve following delivery.[1] 

The underlying cause is not known but is likely to consist of a combination of both genetic and environmental factors.

The importance relates to the risks associated with this condition:

  • There is an increased risk of fetal distress (partly due to increased likelihood of meconium passage) and intrauterine death.[2]
  • There is an increased risk of premature birth (spontaneous and iatrogenic).[3]
  • Maternal morbidity due to intense itching and lack of sleep.[1] 
  • There is no current evidence supporting the claims of increased risk of caesarean section or postpartum haemorrhage.

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  • Past history of obstetric cholestasis.
  • Family history of obstetric cholestasis - eg, mother.
  • Multiple pregnancy.
  • Presence of gallstones.
  • Hepatitis C.
  • Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy typically presents in the third trimester.[4] 
  • Intense pruritus ± excoriation, affecting any part of the body but particularly the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Pruritus is common in pregnancy and only a minority will have obstetric cholestasis.
  • It is often worse at night and may interfere with sleep.
  • Some women develop other signs associated with cholestasis - eg, pale stool, dark urine, jaundice.
  • There may be generalised malaise and fatigue.
  • The itching may precede the LFT abnormalities by days or weeks.

Women with obstetric cholestasis (present or past history) should be managed by a consultant-led team and should deliver in hospital.

Other causes of liver dysfunction and itching need to be excluded. Think of gallstones, hepatitis, Epstein-Barr virus, cytomegalovirus, medications, and an autoimmune process (anti-smooth muscle and antimitochondrial antibodies) and organise a liver ultrasound scan. Other conditions to rule out are pre-eclampsia and fatty liver of pregnancy.[1] Monitor LFTs weekly over this period of investigation.

If no other cause is found for the symptoms and LFT abnormalities, a diagnosis can be made on the basis of symptoms and LFTs: transaminases, gamma-glutamyltransferase (gamma-GT) - both raised - and bilirubin - infrequently raised. More recently, the total bile acid level has been proposed as an alternative diagnostic marker, and is used in many centres.[3]

Interpretation of LFTs should be made in the light of pregnancy-specific ranges (the upper limit of normal is 20% lower than non-pregnant levels, throughout pregnancy).[1] 

Other clinical conditions affecting the liver in pregnancy include hyperemesis gravidarum, pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome (= haemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, low platelet count) and acute fatty liver of pregnancy.[5] Chronic liver diseases, including cholestatic liver disease, autoimmune hepatitis, Wilson's disease, and viral hepatitis, may also be seen in pregnancy.[6] See also the separate article on Jaundice in Pregnancy.

  • Monitoring - LFTs should be monitored weekly. If they return to normal or soar (into the 100s), the diagnosis needs to be revised. Following the delivery, wait at least 10 days before re-checking to avoid the confounding factor of the normal fluctuations in LFTs during this time following normal pregnancies.[1] There are no current guidelines regarding specific fetal monitoring that might reduce the risks described above.
  • Treatment - topical emollients are safe for both mother and baby but their efficacy is unproven.[1] Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) is the mainstay of medical management, with noted positive effects on both maternal and fetal outcome as well as on pruritus.[2][7] Vitamin K can be offered (daily supplement of water-soluble preparation), particularly if there is steatorrhoea or a prolongation of the prothrombin time. Dexamethasone has been studied in small clinical trials but is not recommended due to adverse neurological effects in the fetus/neonate.[1] 
  • Delivery - there are no current data supporting the blanket recommendation of the popular practice of inducing an early labour and delivery (aimed at reducing a late stillbirth). The biochemical results are not helpful in predicting outcome, but continuous fetal monitoring during labour should be offered. However, perinatal and maternal morbidity increases from 37 weeks of gestation onwards, and induction of labour should be considered from this point onwards.[1] This is probably more so in those with more severe disease and higher levels of transaminases and bile acids.

This is a condition that should settle spontaneously following delivery. Follow-up should be long enough to ensure a normalisation of LFTs, and it is reasonable to check the LFTs at six weeks.[1] If, after six months, there is no improvement, further specialist input will be required. Women should be advised that there is a significant risk of recurrence. There is an increased risk of adverse fetal outcome.[8] 

Further reading & references

  1. Obstetric Cholestasis; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (May 2011)
  2. Kondrackiene J, Kupcinskas L; Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy-current achievements and unsolved problems. World J Gastroenterol. 2008 Oct 14;14(38):5781-8.
  3. Wong LF, Shallow H, O'Connell MP; Comparative study on the outcome of obstetric cholestasis. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2008 May;21(5):327-30.
  4. Williamson C, Geenes V; Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol. 2014 Jul;124(1):120-33. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000000346.
  5. Ahmed KT, Almashhrawi AA, Rahman RN, et al; Liver diseases in pregnancy: diseases unique to pregnancy. World J Gastroenterol. 2013 Nov 21;19(43):7639-46. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v19.i43.7639.
  6. Lee NM, Brady CW; Liver disease in pregnancy. World J Gastroenterol. 2009 Feb 28;15(8):897-906.
  7. Gurung V, Middleton P, Milan SJ, et al; Interventions for treating cholestasis in pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jun 24;6:CD000493. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000493.pub2.
  8. Geenes V, Williamson C; Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy. World J Gastroenterol. 2009 May 7;15(17):2049-66.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Gurvinder Rull
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
13570 (v2)
Last Checked:
23/01/2015
Next Review:
22/01/2020

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