Obstetric Cholestasis: A Review and Update


  •   Olawumi Adaramodu

  •   Anthony Kodzo-Grey Venyo


Obstetric cholestasis (OC) is a liver disorder that occurs in the late second and early third trimester of pregnancy characterized by pruritus with increased serum bile acids and other liver function tests. The pathophysiology of OC is still not completely understood. The symptoms and biochemical abnormality rapidly resolve after delivery. OC is associated with an increased risk of adverse obstetrical outcomes. The aetiology of obstetric cholestasis of pregnancy is poorly understood and is thought to be complicated and multifactorial.  OC typically occurs in the late second trimester when the oestrogen levels are the highest in pregnancy. The most common complaint is generalized intense pruritus, which usually starts after the 30th week of pregnancy. Pruritus can be more common in the palms and soles and is typically worse at night. Other symptoms of cholestasis, such as nausea, anorexia, fatigue, right upper quadrant pain, dark urine, and pale stool, can be present. Clinical jaundice is rare but may present in 14% to 25% of patients after 1 to 4 weeks of the onset of pruritus. Some patients also complain of insomnia as a result of pruritus. Generally, physical examination is unremarkable except for scratch marks on the skin from pruritus. Pruritus is a cardinal symptom of intra-hepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP) and may precede biochemical abnormalities. The diagnosis of intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy is via the presence of clinical symptoms pruritus in the third trimester with elevated maternal total serum bile acids and excluding other diagnoses, which can cause similar symptoms and lab abnormalities. Fasting blood samples should be used to check for the total bile salt acid level as it can become elevated in the postprandial state.

Once the diagnosis of OC of pregnancy is confirmed, immediate treatment is necessary, and the primary goal of therapy is to decrease the risk of perinatal morbidity and mortality and to alleviate maternal symptoms. Maternal pruritus can be alleviated with use of moisturisers and oral antihistamines. Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) is the drug of choice for the treatment of ICP.

Many authors have advocated elective early delivery of women with intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy to reduce the risk of sudden foetal death. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends induction of labour after 37+0 weeks of gestation. Obstetric cholestasis of pregnancy is not an indication for Caesarean delivery. Postpartum pruritus typically disappears in the first 2 to 3 days following delivery, and serum bile acid concentrations will normalize eventually. ICP is not a contraindication to breastfeeding, and mothers with a history of ICP in pregnancy can breastfeed their infants. Postpartum monitoring and follow up of bile acids and liver function tests should be done in 4-6 weeks to ensure resolution. Women with the persistent abnormality of liver function test after 6 to 8 weeks require investigation for other aetiologies.

Keywords: Obstetric cholestasis of pregnancy, family history, pruritus, serum bile acid, liver function test, coagulation screen, early induction of labour, vitamin K, postpartum monitoring.


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How to Cite
Adaramodu, O., & Venyo, A. K.-G. (2020). Obstetric Cholestasis: A Review and Update. European Journal of Clinical Medicine, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.24018/clinicmed.2020.1.1.6