Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP) is characterized by troublesome maternal pruritus, elevated serum bile acids (> or =10 micromol/L) and increased fetal risk. Recently we determined a cutoff level of serum bile acids, > or =40 micromol/L, to be associated with impaired fetal outcome. We have now studied the effects of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) and dexamethasone on pruritus, biochemical markers of cholestasis, and fetal complication rates in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. For this purpose, 130 women with ICP were randomly allocated to UDCA (1 g/day for three weeks), or dexamethasone (12 mg/day for 1 week and placebo during weeks 2 and 3), or placebo for 3 weeks. Pruritus and biochemical markers of cholestasis were analyzed at inclusion and after 3 weeks of treatment. Fetal complications (spontaneous preterm delivery; asphyxial events; and meconium staining of amniotic fluid, placenta, and membranes) were registered at delivery. An intention-to-treat analysis showed significant reduction of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) (P = .01) and bilirubin (P = .002) in the UDCA group only. In a subgroup analysis of ICP women with serum bile acids > or =40 micromol/L at inclusion (n = 34), UDCA had significant effects on pruritus (-75%), bile acids (-79%), ALT (-80%), and bilirubin (-50%) as well, but not on fetal complication rates. Dexamethasone yielded no alleviation of pruritus or reduction of ALT and was less effective than UDCA at reducing bile acids and bilirubin. In conclusion, 3 weeks of UDCA treatment improved some biochemical markers of ICP irrespective of disease severity, whereas significant relief from pruritus and marked reduction of serum bile acids were only found in patients with severe ICP.