Cholestasis is a condition caused by rapidly developing (acute) or long-term (chronic) interruption in the excretion of bile (a digestive fluid that helps the body process fat). The term is taken from the Greek chole, bile, and stasis, standing still. Cholestasis is caused by obstruction within the liver (intrahepatic) or outside the liver (extrahepatic). The obstruction causes
bile salts, the bile pigment bilirubin, and fats (lipids) to accumulate in the blood stream instead of being eliminated normally.
Intrahepatic cholestasis is characterized by widespread blockage of small ducts or by disorders, such as hepatitis, that impair the body's ability to eliminate bile. Extrahepatic cholestasis can occur as a side effect of many medications. It can also occur as a complication of surgery, serious injury, tissue-destroying infection, or intravenous feeding. Extrahepatic cholestasis can be caused by conditions such as tumors and gallstones that block the flow of bile from the gallbladder to the first part of the small intestine (duodenum).
Pregnancy increases the sensitivity of the bile ducts to estrogen, and cholestasis often develops during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. This condition is the second most common cause of jaundice during pregnancy, but generalized itching (pruritus gravidarum) is the only symptom most women experience. Cholestasis of pregnancy tends to run in families. Symptoms usually disappear within two to four weeks after the baby's birth but may reappear if the woman becomes pregnant again.
A similar condition affects some women who take birth control pills. Symptoms disappear after the woman stops using oral contraceptives. This condition does not lead to chronic liver disease. A woman who develops cholestasis from either of these causes (pregnancy or birth control hormones) has an increased risk of developing cholestasis from the other.
Benign familial recurrent cholestasis is a rare condition characterized by brief, repeated episodes of itching and jaundice. Symptoms often disappear. This condition does not cause cirrhosis.
Drug-induced cholestasis may be a complication of chemotherapy or other medications. The two major types of drug-induced cholestasis are direct toxic injury and reactions unique to an individual (idiosyncratic reactions). In direct toxic injury, the severity of symptoms parallels the amount of medication involved.
Direct toxic reactions develop in 1% of all patients who take chlorpromazine (Thorazine), a tranquilizer and antinausea drug. Idiosyncratic reactions may occur at the onset of treatment or at a later time. Allergic responses are varied and are not related to the amount of medication being taken.