PBC: symptoms & diagnosis
What are the symptoms of Primary Biliary Cholangitis?
Some people with PBC will never get any symptoms of the disease but some people may experience the following.
Clear symptoms of PBC:
Constant tiredness (for some people this can be severe) and intense itching in any part of the body. Itching, also known as pruritus, may be a result of your liver’s inability to process bile. It is thought that bile acids are not the cause of the itching but rather other chemicals that are retained in the body. As with tiredness, the severity of the itching will vary from person to person. Severity is not an indication of the amount of liver damage.
Other symptoms that may develop usually include the following:
Tiredness and itching are generally the first symptoms to appear while jaundice is usually associated with the later stages of the disease.
How is Primary Biliary Cholangitis diagnosed?
Doctors can tell whether you have PBC on the basis of symptoms and a range of tests, including blood tests.
Most people with PBC have something in their blood called antimitochondrial antibody (AMA). An antibody is a chemical made by the body to attack an ‘invader’. Though doctors are not really sure why, the presence of AMA in your blood is an important sign that you have PBC.
This type of test is performed to gain an idea how the different parts of your liver are functioning. The Liver Function Tests are made up of a number of separate examinations, each looking at different properties of your blood.
In PBC, doctors will be looking for increased levels of both alkaline phosphatase (ALP), an enzyme released into the blood by damaged bile ducts, and the immunoglobulin IgM. The liver enzymes alanine transaminase (ALT) and aspartate transaminase (AST) are also monitored, although these are a measure of any leakiness or damage relating primarily to liver cells rather than the bile duct cells
This is used to check the condition of the bile ducts and to rule out the possibility that your symptoms could be a sign of a different liver problem.
If tests show you have PBC you may need a liver biopsy to see how serious the condition is.
Treatment for Primary Biliary Cholangitis
There are a number of treatments for the symptoms of PBC. Some of them help with any unpleasant symptoms, such as dry eyes, and others slow the progress of the disease. At this time, doctors cannot cure PBC or completely stop its slow destruction of the bile ducts. Because of this PBC is a common reason for liver transplants in the UK.
Itching skin: colestyramine (sold as Questran) may be prescribed by your doctor to help ease itching. Taken orally, colestyramine works by preventing re-absorption of the chemicals that cause the itching. It can take days or even weeks before this becomes effective.
Some people taking colestyramine have problems such as changed bowel habits and bloating. Your doctor may prescribe ‘Questran light’ to reduce these side effects. If colestyramine does not help, a hospital specialist may try other medicines such as rifampicin and naltrexone.
Itching is made worse by dry skin so it is very important to keep your skin well moisturised.
Dry eyes and dry mouth: the combination of dry eyes and a dry mouth (sicca syndrome) might be soothed by such treatments as artificial tears and saliva, lubricating gels and oestrogen creams. You may find that lozenges from your pharmacist will help with the dryness in your mouth.
A liver transplant is usually only recommended if other treatments are no longer helpful and your life is threatened by end stage liver disease. It is a major operation and you will need to plan it carefully with your medical team, family and friends.
Liver transplantation works well for people with PBC. It is possible to get PBC in your new liver, but it may take up to 15 years before the disease becomes significant.
PBC affects people in very different ways. Because of this it is very difficult to say what impact PBC may have on your life.
For example, many people with PBC may live with very few problems for many years, even decades. On the other hand, PBC can have a major impact on people’s day-to-day lives early on by causing unpleasant symptoms such as very itchy skin.
If your liver has become damaged it can have a major impact on your health. For example:
it may reduce your body’s ability to digest food properly, especially fats
it may mean your body does not get enough energy, making you always feel tired (fatigue)
you may not cope very well with toxins such as alcohol and some medicines.
Diet: People with PBC may not have any symptoms associated with fat malabsorption, while others develop symptoms of fat intolerance such as nausea, bloating and abdominal discomfort if they eat even moderate amounts of dietary fat. As the disease advances, the amount of fat excreted in the stools increases (steatorrhoea) and they become bulky, pale and have a tendency to float in the toilet pan.
People with PBC vary in the amount of fat they can tolerate. Most find they are able to work out their tolerance level through ‘trial and error’ by reducing their intake of higher fat foods.
Stools become less frequent, darker and easier to flush away. If, however, steatorrhoea is still troublesome then specialist dietary advice will be needed in order to reduce dietary fat intake while keeping energy and protein levels relatively high.
Fats contain the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K and E, and these may need to be supplemented. Oral supplements can be given but as the disease progresses it may be necessary to provide the supplements monthly by intramuscular injection.
As people with PBC are prone to bone disease, calcium supplements will usually be given alongside vitamin D.
People with PBC may develop cirrhosis and need to follow special diet advice. Read more about diet and cirrhosis here.
Alcohol and smoking are dangerous to anyone with liver problems.
Many complementary and alternative medicines are available that may ease the symptoms of liver disease. But certain medications used in non-liver related disease can damage the liver. At present, healthcare professionals are not clear on the role and place of some therapies in managing liver disease. More research needs to be done on the use of these therapies. You may wish to discuss the use of these therapies with your doctor.
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