Itching of the Skin During Pregnancy

Itching of the skin during pregnancy is more of a frustration and annoyance, rather than anything else, most of the time. Itching can be caused by stretching of the skin, hormonal shifts and increased drying of the skin. They are all common and relatively harmless conditions. However, there is a much more serious itch that should never be ignored; it’s medical term is Intrahepatic Cholestassis of Pregnancy (ICP).

Because ICP occurs in fewer than 1 in 100 pregnant mothers, it is not something that is frequently seen.  ICP is a condition that involves a pregnant woman’s liver.  The disorder impairs the normal release of bile from the liver, which in turn effects normal functioning of the liver. The bile salts then build up in the body. While there is no cure and the condition itself is uncomfortable, it poses no significant long term risks to the mother.

The concern about ICP is that it has the potential to cause premature birth and has been associated with a higher incidence of stillbirth.

A recent case of ICP for a Melbourne mother resulted in the loss of her baby at 33 weeks. Lisa McNally experienced terrible itching at 28 weeks pregnant, but her doctor assured her it was normal to experience some itching in pregnancy.

At 33 weeks pregnant, at a routine obstetrician appointment, her doctor could not find a heartbeat, with a follow up ultrasound confirming her daughter, Harlow Rose, had sadly died. Blood tests revealed that Ms McNally was suffering from ICP.

The most notable symptom of ICP is the intensity of the extreme itchiness that can be all over the body, but often noticed on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, then spreading generally over the body. Mothers often describe the itching from really annoying through to relentless, intense and unbearable at night.

Other less annoying symptoms may go unnoticed, such as the dark concentrate looking urine, despite drinking plenty of water, and pale (and often more offensive) poo. Some may find friends comment on seeing yellowing of the mother’s eyes or yellow tinging of the skin.  Fatigue is also associated with ICP but often is mistaken for just being tired during pregnancy, because even though ICP can happen early in a pregnancy it usually presents in the third trimester.

Other less common symptoms include pain under the right side of the rib cage and around the side of the torso in the same region. It is often described as a dull throbbing pain or as sharp stabbing pain. It is caused by the liver involvement, but can be mistakenly interpreted as baby pushing up under the rib cage.

It is important that you report any similar symptoms to your doctor so they can rule out ICP.

If you have ruled out ICP and are suffering from an annoying pregnancy itch, there are ways to get relief:

  • Avoid hot showers or baths. The elevated temperature will trigger itching, so keep showers and baths tepid to warm.
  • Avoid soaps and body cream. The chemicals in perfumed products can irritate the skin and trigger itching.
  • An oatmeal bath may assist with softening the skin and helping to receive dry skin associated with pregnancy itch.
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