Mechanisms of pruritus in cholestasis: understanding and treating the itch

Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2023 Jan;20(1):26-36. doi: 10.1038/s41575-022-00687-7. Epub 2022 Oct 28.


Pruritus in cholestatic liver diseases can be a major burden and dramatically impair the quality of life of those affected. Here, we provide an update on the latest insights into the molecular pathogenesis of and novel therapeutic approaches for cholestasis-associated itch. Endogenous and exogenous small-molecule pruritogen candidates bind to their receptors on unmyelinated itch C-fibres in the skin. Candidate pruritogens in cholestasis include certain lysophospholipids and sulfated progesterone metabolites, among others, whereas total bile acid or bilirubin conjugates seem unlikely to have a dominant role in the pathogenesis of cholestasis-associated pruritus. Transmission of itch signals via primary, secondary and tertiary itch neurons to the postcentral gyrus and activation of scratch responses offer various targets for therapeutic intervention. At present, evidence-based treatment options for pruritus in fibrosing cholangiopathies, such as primary biliary cholangitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis, are the peroxisome proliferator-associated receptor (PPAR) agonist bezafibrate and the pregnane X receptor (PXR) agonist rifampicin. In pruritus of intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, ursodeoxycholic acid is recommended and might be supported in the third trimester by rifampicin if needed. Alternatively, non-absorbable anion exchange resins, such as cholestyramine, can be administered, albeit with poor trial evidence. Liver transplantation for intolerable refractory pruritus has become an extremely rare therapeutic strategy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cholestasis* / complications
  • Cholestasis* / metabolism
  • Cholestasis, Intrahepatic* / drug therapy
  • Cholestyramine Resin / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Pruritus / drug therapy
  • Pruritus / etiology
  • Quality of Life
  • Rifampin / therapeutic use


  • Rifampin
  • Cholestyramine Resin