Objectives: Generalized pruritus is a common complication of cholestatic liver diseases, although its pathogenesis remains elusive. Current treatments are often inadequate and may be poorly tolerated, so the clinician is sometimes faced with a patient in misery and no good therapeutic options. Because, in our experience, several patients with primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) claimed that sertraline had improved their pruritus, we sought to determine whether sertraline use was associated with changes in pruritus medications or self-reported severity of pruritus in a large cohort of patients with PBC.
Methods: The self-reported severity of pruritus was followed prospectively in 40 patients with PBC for a mean of 7.5 +/- 1.3 yr. These data were then retrospectively examined to determine the effect of sertraline on pruritus in all subjects who had received sertraline at some time during the study.
Results: For 28 of 32 patients with pruritus, itching was stable or fluctuated slightly over the follow-up period. No patient experienced rapid progression of pruritus, and four patients experienced a sustained resolution of their pruritus. Ten subjects started sertraline and continued it long enough (>6 months) to determine its lasting effect on pruritus. Three of these individuals did not have significant pruritus before or after sertraline. Of the seven patients with pruritus, six (86%) recorded a significant reduction or resolution of pruritus in their weekly diaries and also decreased or completely stopped other medications for pruritus.
Conclusions: Sertraline use is associated with an improvement in cholestatic pruritus. This novel observation implies that serotonergic fibers are important in regulating the perception of itch.