Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), also known as obstetric cholestasis (OC), is a liver disorder that can develop during pregnancy. It is uncommon, affecting 1 in 140 pregnant women (0.7%). Mothers whose family birth origins are India or Pakistan have a slightly higher risk (1-2%).
ICP is caused by a build-up of bile acids and other substances in the liver, which then ‘leak’ into the woman’s bloodstream. It is diagnosed by looking for a raised level of bile acids in the blood.
It is most common for ICP/OC to develop after 28 weeks of pregnancy but it is possible for it to happen as early as week 8 of pregnancy.
Although the itching can be very uncomfortable and it can be frightening to be diagnosed, most women who have ICP have a healthy baby.
Symptoms of intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy/ obstetric cholestasis
Itching during pregnancy
The main symptom of ICP/OC is itching, usually without a rash.
- This is often more noticeable on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet although it can be anywhere on the body.
- Typically, the itching is worse at night.
- It can range from mild to severe but more severe itching does not mean you have a worse case of the disorder.
Dark urine is also usually present in many cases.
If you have itching as described above tell your midwife or doctor promptly.
Other less common symptoms of ICP/OC
Other less common symptoms that not all women will have include:
- pale stools (poo)
- jaundice (noticeable by yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes)
- pain in the area around the liver (Right Upper Quadrant Pain). It is most commonly felt under the ribs on the right side. Less commonly it can be felt radiating to a spot in the back under the right shoulder
If you have these symptoms see your midwife or doctor.
Watch our Facebook live with ICP Support and Helen George
Is intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy / obstetric cholestasis serious?
ICP/OC is a serious condition but with treatment and monitoring most women go on to have a healthy baby, and the itching goes away afterwards.
For you, the constant itching is not harmful but when it is severe it can be very difficult to live with (see more below), especially if it prevents sleep. Some women report feeling anxious because of the concerns of the condition, the need for extra hospital appointments and as a result of sleep disruption from the itching. If so, the information on this page may help you.
ICP/OC and premature birth
If you have intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, there is a higher risk of the baby being born prematurely. About 1 in 10 women diagnosed will have their baby before full term (37 weeks). This figure, however, includes women who have their labour induced because of ICP/OC. It is thought that it happens spontaneously (without being induced) in around 4-10% of ICP/OC pregnancies. Be aware of the signs of preterm labour and if you have them seek medical attention immediately.
ICP/OC and stillbirth
There is evidence that women who have been diagnosed with ICP/OC are at higher risk of having a stillborn baby (thought to be between 1 and 4%). With active management (treatment, ongoing tests and monitoring) and early delivery though, the risk may be lessened.
Because of this your doctor might advise you to have your labour induced if your bile acids go over 40 µmol/L. Bile acids above this concentration have been shown to be associated with a higher risk of stillbirth. They will discuss the pros and cons with you if so.
Recent research suggests that the risk of stillbirth is increased in women with ICP bile acids concentrations are of 100 μmol/L or more, not 40 μmol/L or more, which is reassuring. The best thing to do is to work with your midwife to make sure your condition is monitored carefully by having repeat bile acid testing until you give birth.
ICP/OC and meconium
There is also a higher risk that the baby may pass meconium (first poo) during the pregnancy or labour, which can cause breathing problems for them.
These factors also mean that there is also a higher likelihood that your baby may need to be admitted to the neonatal unit.
Causes of intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy/obstetric cholestasis
ICP/OC occurs when there is a reduced flow of bile down the bile ducts in the liver.
- Bile is a fluid that is made by the liver that helps with digestion.
- The reduced flow causes the bile acids to leak out into the bloodstream.
We don’t know why ICP/OC happens but it is thought to be affected by three factors:
Hormones: Pregnancy hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone are thought to affect how the liver works
Genetics: ICP/OC is more common in families and certain ethnic groups, such as South America, India or Pakistan.
Environment: ICP/OC is more common in the winter months, which is why dietary factors may be involved including lack of vitamin D and selenium (a nutrient found in certain foods) levels.
ICP/OC often happens again in a following pregnancy but not always.
Diagnosis of intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy/obstetric cholestasis
If you go to your midwife or doctor with symptoms of ICP/OC you should have blood tests to check if you have the condition.
These tests will check for ICP/OC as well as other causes of itching.
Blood tests for ICP/OC
Bile acid test – In ICP bile acids leak into the bloodstream. A bile acid test is believed to be the most specific test for ICP. Different hospitals have different ranges for the 'normal' level of bile acids in the blood. Some use 0-10 µmol/L and some use 0-14 µmol/L. Depending on which range your hospital uses, anything above the upper number supports a diagnosis of ICP.
If your blood results come back as normal but the itching continues then it is important to have the tests again because the itching can happen before ICP/OC shows up in tests.
Liver function test (LFT) – This blood test looks at how well the liver is working (how your body is coping) by measuring the levels of different enzymes. The key enzymes that are measured are ALT (alanine transaminase) and AST (aspartate transaminase). Research has shown that these sometimes rise before the bile acids so if these are raised but the bile acid test is normal then you should be tested again.
Sometimes bile acids can be abnormal while the ALT or AST remains normal. If your doctors have excluded all other causes of itch then the diagnosis of ICP still remains. However, it is also possible for your ALT/AST to be raised but with normal bile acids. In this instance ICP would not be diagnosed but it is important for your bile acids to continue to be tested if you are still itching.
Treatment of intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy/obstetric cholestasis
Tommy’s researchers are trying to find the best way to treat women with ICP. You can read more about our cholestasis research here.
Dealing with itchy skin in pregnancy
The itching can be persistent and can affect your sense of wellbeing, especially if it prevents you from sleeping.
Women have told us that use of aqueous creams with menthol can be soothing and give relief but they cannot help improve bile acids or liver function. Chlorpheniramine (Piriton) may be prescribed by your doctor. Although again there is little evidence on how effective this is in reducing the itching, some women have reported that it has helped. It may help you sleep as it causes drowsiness.
Other steps that are not proven to be effective against the condition but could help your sense of wellbeing are:
- having a healthy balanced diet
- wearing cool loose clothing
- resting if you feel tired.
Counselling or talking therapies can also help if you are feeling very anxious about the condition.
Your care during pregnancy with ICP/OC
Once diagnosed specialists recommend that your pregnancy be under the care of a consultant led team.
There is no cure for ICP/OC but ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) is often prescribed. This sometimes improves the itching and liver function/bile acid levels (which may benefit you and the baby) but researchers are still trying to find out if it’s the best drug there is for women with the condition. Many researchers do think it helps to protect the baby but they are still working to prove this. It is not licensed for use in pregnancy but there is no evidence that it is harmful to the baby and has been given to many thousands of women in pregnancy.
The main treatment is to monitor your pregnancy carefully. During the pregnancy:
- blood tests (LFTs and bile acid tests) should be offered weekly or more frequently, depending on the stage of pregnancy and the results of the previous test.
- the baby’s heartbeat may be monitored using a CTG machine. This cannot predict complications, but it can provide some reassurance.
If you are not offered weekly blood tests, you can request them and use the following research to justify your request:
- Geenes V, Chappell LC, Seed PT, Steer PJ, Knight, M, Williamson C Association of severe intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy with adverse pregnancy outcomes: a prospective population-based case-control study. Hepatology 2014; First published online 26 February 2014; DOI: 10.1002/hep.26617
- Anna Glantz, Hanns-Ulrich Marschall and Lars-Åke Mattsson (2004) Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy: Relationships between bile acid levels and fetal complication rates. Hepatology, Volume 40, Issue 2, Pages 467–474. (DoI: 10.1002/hep.20336)
If you have intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy/obstetric cholestasis it is really important for you to monitor your baby’s movements and if there is any change or reduction in movements from the usual pattern report it promptly to your midwife or hospital.
Labour and birth with obstetric cholestasis/intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy
Your doctor may advise you to have your labour induced early. This will depend on:
- your blood tests
- how you are coping with the itching
- how well your baby is doing.
As you have a very small extra risk (1-4%) of having a stillborn baby. your doctor might advise you to have your labour induced if bile acids go over a certain limit (40 µmol/L).
They will discuss the pros and cons with you if so.
There is also a higher risk that the baby may pass meconium (first poo) during the pregnancy or labour, which can cause breathing problems for them.
This means there is an increased likelihood that your baby may need to be admitted to the neonatal unit.
You have a small increased risk of slightly higher blood loss when giving birth.
If you are writing your birth plan keep in mind that your pregnancy complication means you may be advised not to have a water birth or home birth.
Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy/ obstetric cholestasis after the birth
Most women can stop taking UDCA immediately after their baby has been born. However, we know from speaking to specialists in ICP, that a very small number of women have had to remain on UDCA where there bile acids have been in the hundreds, and then have the dosage gradually reduced to taking nothing after a week or two. You may want to do discuss this with your doctor to see what they usually do.
The causes of ICP/OC usually self-correct without any extra treatment when you have had your baby. You should have a blood test 6-12 weeks after the baby has been born to be sure. If by six months your levels have not returned to normal then you should have more tests for other possible liver conditions.
Researchers have now also shown that ICP may have longer term implications for women such as an increased risk of developing gallstones and Type 2 diabetes. It’s probably a good idea for you to have an annual check on your liver and your sugars (glucose) and these are very simple blood tests that your GP can help you with.
Cat Loxton was diagnosed with obstetric cholestasis at 32 weeks. She was induced at 37 weeks to deliver son Barney, now seven months.
Sinead was diagnosed with obstetric cholestasis (OC) at around 32 weeks after a month of itching. She was induced and son Charlie arrived at 37.5 weeks.
Stacey was diagnosed with Obstetric Cholestasis (OC) at 37 weeks which resulted in an induced delivery of her son.
The itching was really irritating but, for me, the most difficult thing about being diagnosed with OC was the fear, the terrible fear that I could lose my baby.
Are you worried about your baby’s reduced movements? This leaflet outlines the care that you should expect to receive, depending on which stage of the pregnancy you are at.
Our #movementsmatter campaign, launched on 24 October, challenges dangerous myths about baby movement during pregnancy, and urges mums-to-be to follow current recommendations about what to do when they experience a change in their baby's movements.
It's concerning to see mobile apps that claim to monitor your baby’s heartbeat being promoted in the press
An Evening Standard piece promoting mobile apps for mums-to-be shows why greater awareness about reduced fetal movements is needed.
Our midwife Kate strongly advises against using home devices for 'reassurance', or mobile apps that falsely claim to be able to monitor your baby's heartbeat.
RCOG (2012) Obstetric cholestasis, Information for you. Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists, London https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/patients/patient-informat...
RCOG (2011) Obstetric Cholestasis, Green top guideline No 43. Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists, London https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/guidelines-research-services/guidelines/gtg43/
NHS Choices (accessed Nov 2016, Next review date: 25/07/2018) Itching and intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/itching-obstetric-...
Ovadia C, Williamson C (2016) Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy: Recent advances, Clinics in Dermatology, 34, 327–334
Williamson C, Geenes V (2014) Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol 2014; 124:120–133.
Geenes V, Chappell LC, Seed PT, Steer PJ, Knight M, Williamson C (2014) Association of severe intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy with adverse pregnancy outcomes: A prospective population-based case-control study. Hepatology; 59: 1482–91
Ovadia, C (2019) Association of adverse perinatal outcomes of intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy with biochemical markers: results of aggregate and individual patient data meta-analyses. The Lancet https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31877-4/fulltext
ℹLast reviewed on October 17th, 2017. Next review date October 17th, 2020.
By Katie R (not verified) on 11 Nov 2019 - 07:48
Yes, each pregnancy I begin itching at 4 weeks (this is how I know I’m pregnant) and it does not subside until birth. Absolutely miserable but I have a healthy happy son after miscarriage so I am so very happy. For me nothing helped the itch besides eating ice and icing the worst parts of my body where it itched. I did not take medication because it was not offered to me. But I would have.
By Liza Braganza (not verified) on 20 Jun 2019 - 04:16
My induction date was moved fr June 24 (37th wk 0 days) to vallejo hospi but due to some traumatic experience on my 1st labor years ago my dr requested my induction at Walnut creek. However they can only accept me on Friday. Which is 37th week and 4 days. I am distraught bec I worry about meconium staining or fetal demise due to this delay. I am so torn, I had to relive that trauma again in Vallejo if I labor on the 24th or prolong my agony of extending the date of delivery at walnut creek. I am worried abt meconium staining or still birth because days and time matters. Last Fri my bile was 14 from originally 25 bec or Ursodial. However extreme itching happened last Monday and couldn't sleep till 5 am. I went to triage and NST was ok but did not have blood work to know if bile salt went up again.
By Stacey (not verified) on 22 Mar 2019 - 00:11
My levels are 13 is that bad
By Sivasankari sak... (not verified) on 16 Feb 2018 - 18:16
Please consider the above atricle. Its really true. I last my baby due to this icp 3days before.