Primary Biliary Cirrhosis Treatment (PBC)

  • Medical Author:

    John M. Vierling M.D. is Professor of Medicine and Surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, where he also serves as Director of Baylor Liver Health and Chief of Hepatology. In addition, he is the Director of Advanced Liver Therapies, a center devoted to clinical research in hepatobiliary diseases at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital. Dr. Vierling is board certified in internal medicine and gastroenterology and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.

  • Medical Editor: Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)
    Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)

    Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)

    Dr. Anand received MBBS degree from Medical College Amritsar, University of Punjab. He completed his Internal Medicine residency at the Postgraduate Institute of medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, India. He was trained in the field of Gastroenterology and obtained the DPhil degree. Dr. Anand is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology.

woman with abdominal pain

Cholestyramine (Questran) for itching

Cholestyramine is a drug taken orally that is not absorbed in the gut. The drug attaches (binds) to substances in the gut, including those that came from the bile, and then removes them from the body into the bowel movements. Presumably, cholestyramine is helpful because it binds both bile acids and unidentified substances that cause itching after they are absorbed from the gut into the blood stream. Cholestyramine is the most effective therapy for most patients with cholestatic itching. For optimal effects, cholestyramine should be taken with meals when bile flow into the gut is highest. A somewhat larger dose with breakfast is recommended for patients with gallbladders since the bile stored overnight in the gallbladder is released at this time.

It is important to note that cholestyramine can also bind to medications. Therefore, it is important that other medicines be taken one hour before or two hours after cholestyramine. The usual dosage is 8 grams with breakfast, 4 grams with lunch, and 4 grams with dinner. Cholestyramine does not dissolve well in liquids and often feels gritty as it is swallowed. Mixing it in carbonated beverages, however, can reduce this problem.

The principal side effect of cholestyramine is constipation. The constipation occurs because the drug binds the bile acids that otherwise would make more water available in the colon to soften the stool. Adverse reactions of cyclosporine include:

  • Kidney dysfunction
  • Tremor
  • High blood pressure
  • Gum hyperplasia

Another bile acid-binding medication that can be tried to relieve itching is colestipol (Colestid).

Rifampin for itching

An antibiotic, rifampin (Rifidin) was initially found to improve itching due to cholestasis actually by chance. Then, a study of patients with PBC that included a cross-over between rifampin and an inactive compound (placebo) showed that rifampin did reduce itching at a dose of 150 mg taken two or three times per day. This drug may take up to one month to be effective, but should not take longer. Therefore, if the drug is not effective after one month, it should be discontinued. Not all patients with PBC benefit from this drug.

The way in which rifampin works is poorly understood. It can induce biochemical pathways in hepatocytes that theoretically may alter the bile acid environment within these cells. The side effects of rifampin include elevation of bilirubin, dark urine, hepatitis (more rarely), reduced numbers of blood platelets (small elements that help stop bleeding from a cut surface), and kidney damage.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/7/2016

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