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Primary Biliary Cholangitis (PBC)

Condition Basics

What is primary biliary cholangitis (PBC)?

Primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) used to be called primary biliary cirrhosis and is a type of liver disease caused by damage to the bile ducts in the liver. Much like other forms of liver disease, PBC permanently damages the liver as tissue is replaced with scar tissue (fibrosis). As more scar tissue develops, the structure and function of the liver are affected.

What causes it?

The exact cause of PBC is unknown. But it may be related to a problem with the immune system, which is the body's natural defense system.

What are the symptoms?

Many people who have primary biliary cholangitis do not have symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • Itching (pruritus).
  • Fatigue.
  • Yellowing of the skin and the white part of the eyes (jaundice).
  • Discomfort in the upper right part of the abdomen.
  • Dry eyes and mouth.

How is it diagnosed?

PBC is suspected based on a medical history, physical exam, and lab tests that show high levels of the enzyme alkaline phosphatase (ALP) and antimitochondrial antibodies (AMA) in the blood. Your doctor may also conduct an imaging test such as an ultrasound, which shows images of the liver and other tissues inside the body. Your doctor may also do a biopsy to remove a small piece of tissue from the liver.

How is PBC treated?

Treatment for primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) is difficult, because the immune system appears to be involved. As with other forms of liver disease, treatment focuses on reducing symptoms, preventing and treating the complications of the disease, and preventing other conditions that may cause additional liver damage.

Two medicines, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) and obeticholic acid (OCA), can be used to treat PBC. Both medicines help move bile out of the liver into the small intestine. And OCA decreases the amount of bile acids made by the liver.

If you have fatigue, your doctor will try to find the cause of your tiredness. It may not be caused by PBC. Some medicines have been tried to help with fatigue in PBC, but none have been proved to work well.

PBC can also cause dry eyes and mouth. The best way to help dry eyes is to use eye drops (artificial tears) when your eyes feel dry. A dry mouth can be helped by sugar-free chewing gum or hard candy to increase saliva. You can also use a saliva substitute. If that doesn't help, there are some medicines that can be used.

Stop drinking alcohol completely. Doing this is important, even if alcohol wasn't the cause of PBC. If you don't stop, liver damage may quickly get worse.

Get immunized. This includes vaccines against hepatitis A and hepatitis B, influenza, shingles, and pneumonia.

Because people with PBC have a high risk of getting osteoporosis, you should have periodic bone density scans. Your doctor may suggest that you take calcium and vitamin D supplements and perhaps a medicine called a bisphosphonate.

People who have end-stage primary biliary cholangitis may need a liver transplant. But primary biliary cholangitis can recur after a liver transplant.

Credits

Current as of: February 10, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
W. Thomas London MD - Hepatology

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