Blog | Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mystery symptom of itchiness during pregnancy could indicate a dangerous liver problem


If a pregnant woman finds herself scratching and itching during the third trimester, these symptoms should not be ignored. Each year, approximately 0.1% to 15% of pregnant women are affected by a liver disorder called Intrahepatic Cholestasis of Pregnancy (ICP).

ICP patients tend to develop symptoms of itchiness of their hands and feet that becomes progressively worse and then spreads all over their body. The itchiness usually worsens at night and if untreated can cause jaundice and several life-threatening complications to the unborn fetus. When a pregnant woman complaints of itchiness (pruritus) all over her body, the first order of business is to determine whether a rash is present. If a rash is absent, ICP should be suspected.

The liver is the largest gland in the body and in addition to filtering harmful substances such as alcohol, it is also responsible for processing fats, carbohydrates and proteins. To process fat, the liver makes bile salts. In ICP, bile salts are increased, which contributes to the symptoms of itchiness. Affected women will not only be plagued by pruritus but their unborn babies are at risk for stillbirth, preterm labor, fetal distress and abnormal heart rates.

South American women and especially those from Chile have a greater risk of developing ICD, as do women from South Asia and Sweden. However, North American born women in the U.S. have also been affected as well as women with Hepatitis C. Female hormones such as estrogen and progesterone contribute to the development of ICP, as does genetics. The diagnosis of ICP is made by specific laboratory tests. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the patient should be referred to a maternal fetal medicine specialist for further management. ICP is a high risk condition and the baby usually has to be delivered early because the mother cannot tolerate the intense itching. There is a special medicine that can be prescribed to reduce the elevated bile acids but it should be given under the supervision of a physician specializing in high-risk pregnancies.

A complaint of severe itching that develops during the third trimester should not be ignored or given Benadryl if the symptoms have lasted for more than three days. At minimum, lab work should be ordered. Remember, a healthy baby doesn't just happen. It takes a smart mother who knows what to do.

This post by Linda Burke-Galloway, MD, appeared at Get Better Health, a network of popular health bloggers brought together by Val Jones, MD. Better Health's mission is to support and promote health care professional bloggers, provide insightful and trustworthy health commentary, and help to inform health policy makers about the provider point of view on health care reform, science, research and patient care.