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What is Cholestatic Jaundice?

By Eric Stolze
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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Cholestatic jaundice is a condition that causes the skin and eyes to develop a jaundiced, or yellowed, appearance due to cholestasis — obstructed bile flow in the liver. Jaundice results from an excessive accumulation of bilirubin in the body. Bilirubin is a byproduct of retired red blood cells that is normally transported to the liver. Bile in the liver typically breaks down bilirubin so that it can be excreted from the digestive tract in the feces. An individual with cholestatic jaundice generally cannot process bilirubin through his or her liver at a sufficient rate to prevent the substance from building up in the body.

Jaundice may cause bothersome itching that even interferes with a patient’s sleep. In many cases, people with cholestatic jaundice and obstructed bile ducts experience vitamin deficiencies due to a shortage of bile in the intestinal tract. Bile is an important ingredient in the digestion process that releases nutrients, such as vitamins, from digested food.

People with cholestasis may notice that their stools develop a clay-colored or white appearance due to a lack of bile. Unusually dark colored urine, vomiting, and nausea are possible with this medical condition. Pain in the upper right area of the abdomen has been reported in some cases of cholestasis. Complications of cholestasis may include diarrhea, bone weakening, and organ failure due to sepsis.

Cholestatic jaundice may result from a variety of causes including alcoholic liver disease, viral hepatitis, and infections that spread through a patient’s bloodstream. In some instances, people who use intravenous (IV) feeding tubes may be at an increased risk of developing cholestatic jaundice. Lymphoma and amyloidosis are medical conditions that may also cause a patient to develop cholestasis. Cholestatic jaundice is typically treated by treating the underlying cause of the condition.

Drug-induced cholestasis has occurred in some patients who use drugs that reduce the flow of bile. Some drugs that may cause this condition include penicillin-based antibiotics, anabolic steroids, and oral contraceptives. Patients who use these drugs may want to discuss the risk of cholestatic jaundice with a doctor.

Doctors typically have patients undergo blood tests to monitor bilirubin levels and the levels of other substances, such as alkaline phosphate. Imaging tests are often useful tools that help identify bile flow obstructions. Physicians may order abdominal computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests of the abdomen, and an abdominal ultrasound test.

Pregnant women may develop cholestasis of pregnancy during the third trimester of their pregnancies. This type of cholestasis typically causes intense itching, especially on the feet and hands. Cholestasis of pregnancy is often dangerous for developing unborn infants and may result in a higher risk of preterm birth or infant breathing problems during delivery.

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