Health Guide

Primary biliary cirrhosis


The bile ducts are tubes that move bile from the liver to the small intestine. Bile is a substance that helps with digestion. All of the bile ducts together are called the biliary tract.

When the bile ducts become swollen or inflamed, this blocks the flow of bile. The buildup of bile damages the liver cells and leads to scarring of the liver called cirrhosis. This is called biliary cirrhosis.

Alternative Names



The cause of inflamed bile ducts in the liver is not known. However, primary biliary cirrhosis is an autoimmune disorder. That means your body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. The disease may be linked to autoimmune disorders such as:

The disease more commonly affects middle-aged women.


More than one half of people have no symptoms at the time of diagnosis. Symptoms most often begin slowly. Early symptoms may include:

  • Nausea and belly pain
  • Fatigue and loss of energy
  • Fatty deposits under the skin
  • Fatty stools
  • Itching
  • Poor appetite and weight loss

As liver function worsens, symptoms may include:

  • Fluid buildup in the legs (edema) and in the abdomen (ascites)
  • Yellow color in the skin, mucous membranes, or eyes (jaundice)
  • Redness on the palms of the hands
  • In men, impotence, shrinking of the testicles, and breast swelling
  • Easy bruising and abnormal bleeding, most often from swollen veins in the digestive tract
  • Confusion or problems thinking
  • Pale or clay-colored stools

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will do a physical exam.

The following tests can check to see if your liver is working properly:

  • Albumin blood test
  • Liver function tests (serum alkaline phosphatase is most important)
  • Prothrombin time (PT)
  • Cholesterol and lipoprotein blood tests

Other tests that can help diagnose this disease are:


The goal of treatment is to ease symptoms and prevent complications.

Cholestyramine (or colestipol) may reduce the itching. Ursodeoxycholic acid may improve removal of bile from the bloodstream. This may improve survival in some people.

Vitamin replacement therapy restores vitamins A, K, E and D, which are lost in fatty stools. A calcium supplement or other bone medicines may be added to prevent or treat weak or soft bones.

Long-term monitoring and treatment of liver failure is needed.

Liver transplant may be successful if it is done before liver failure occurs.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outcome can vary. If the condition is not treated, most people will die without a liver transplant. About one quarter of people who have had the disease for 10 years will have liver failure. Doctors can now use a statistical model to predict the best time to do the transplant. Other diseases, such as hypothyroidism and anemia, can also develop.

Possible Complications

Progressive cirrhosis can lead to liver failure. Complications can include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you have:


Anstee QM, Jones DEJ. Liver and biliary tract disease. In: Walker BR, Colledge NR, Ralston SH, Perman ID, eds. Davidson's Principles and Practice of Medicine. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2012:chap 23.

Eaton JE, Lindor KD. Primary biliary chirrhosis. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 91.

Fogel EL, Sherman S. Diseases of the gallbladder and liver. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 155.

Review Date: 5/11/2016
Reviewed By: Subodh K. Lal, MD, gastroenterologist with Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia, Austell, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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