Itchy skin may be a symptom of gallbladder cancer if other symptoms are present, such as yellow skin and eyes, fever, or unexplained weight loss.

Itching can be a symptom of gallbladder cancer, but, more often, itching throughout the body is caused by something other than cancer. Itchy skin, or “pruritus,” can have many causes including:

In gallbladder cancer or bile duct cancer, itching is considered to be caused by bile salt buildup in the blood, which can lead to full-body itching. These bile salts may be released from a tumor or in response to a tumor.

For itching to be considered a symptom of gallbladder cancer, the itching is usually accompanied by other gallbladder cancer symptoms.

This article reviews all the symptoms of gallbladder cancer and other disorders of the digestive system that may also cause itching.

Gallbladder cancer doesn’t usually have symptoms in its early stages, which makes it hard to identify and diagnose early. Early diagnosis is also difficult because gallbladder cancer is rare in the United States, and its symptoms can overlap with many other conditions.

If symptoms of gallbladder cancer are present, the cancer has likely advanced. These symptoms may include:

Gallbladder cancer isn’t common. It’s estimated that in 2023, only about 12,220 cases of gallbladder and other large bile duct cancers will be diagnosed in the United States. Less than half of those cases will be gallbladder cancer.

Itchy skin on its own is seldom a cause for concern, but, in combination with other signs and symptoms, it could be an indication of several different digestive disorders.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

IBS is defined as a group of symptoms affecting your digestive system without causing any noticeable damage to the digestive tract. All-over itching is a symptom of IBS.

It’s possible that the itching is because a nerve receptor that causes itchy skin is more common in people with IBS. When these receptors are stimulated, it can cause pain in the gut in addition to itchy skin.

People who have IBS may also experience:

  • changes in bowel habits
  • abdominal pain or cramping
  • excessive flatulence
  • bloating
  • the occasional need to move your bowels

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a collection of disorders that cause chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. The disorders that make up IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

People who have IBD often experience issues with itching and dry skin, which is more common in active-stage IBD.

In addition to itching, people who have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may experience the same symptoms as someone with IBS. They may also experience:

  • intestinal scarring
  • extreme fatigue
  • eye inflammation
  • rectal bleeding
  • joint pain
  • malnutrition
  • weight loss

Kidney disease

The buildup of toxins and wastes in damaged kidneys can lead to itchy skin in people with chronic kidney disease.

Other symptoms of kidney disease may include:

  • fatigue
  • increased urination
  • foamy urine (indication of increased proteins)
  • blood in the urine
  • persistent eye puffiness
  • swollen ankles and feet
  • poor appetite
  • muscle cramps

Liver disease

Itchy skin isn’t usually linked to alcohol-related liver diseases, but it may be a symptom of primary biliary cirrhosis, primary sclerosing cholangitis, or intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy.

Itchiness related to liver disease is thought to be caused by a combination of factors, such as an increase in bile salts, histamines, or different hormones that are affected by liver disease.

Other liver disease signs and symptoms may include:

  • jaundice
  • bloody, pale, or black stools
  • an enlarged stomach
  • encephalopathy

Bile duct cancer

Most people who have bile duct cancer notice itching. It’s believed that this itching is caused by an excess of bilirubin in the skin.

Additional symptoms of bile duct cancer are:

  • jaundice
  • greasy or light-colored stools
  • abdominal pain
  • dark urine
  • fever
  • nausea and vomiting
  • weight loss

Pancreatic cancer

Jaundice, a yellowing of the eyes and skin, can be one symptom of pancreatic cancer. Itching can also be related to jaundice, caused by a bilirubin buildup in the skin.

Symptoms and signs of pancreatic cancer aren’t usually present until the cancer is more advanced, but they may include:

  • belly or back pain
  • nausea or vomiting
  • liver or gallbladder enlargement
  • blood clots

Sometimes gallbladder cancer is found during an unrelated medical test or procedure. More commonly, tests to diagnose gallbladder cancer aren’t performed until symptoms appear.

The tests that may be used to diagnose gallbladder cancer include:

  • Blood tests: Certain liver function tests can show how your gallbladder, liver, and bile ducts are working and may point to the cause of your symptoms.
  • Imaging tests: Ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRI scans can all be used to show any changes or abnormalities in your gallbladder.
  • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography: This diagnostic procedure can show bile duct or liver blockages.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography: During this test, dye is injected into your bile duct to make blockages more visible. The test involves the use of an endoscope, which is a small tube with a camera, in order to reach the bile duct.
  • Biopsy: During this test, a small section of a tumor is removed to confirm the presence of cancer cells. It’s often the most conclusive diagnostic test for gallbladder cancer.

Experts don’t know exactly what causes gallbladder cancer, but a consistent link across many of the risk factors for gallbladder cancer is chronic gallbladder inflammation.

It’s thought that the inflammation caused by these risk factors can lead to changes in a person’s DNA, possibly causing cancer cells to develop and spread.

The most common risk factors for gallbladder cancer include:

Itchy skin isn’t usually a cause for alarm, but it can sometimes be a symptom of gallbladder cancer.

If you have itchy skin in addition to other symptoms such as jaundice, abdominal pain, or dark urine, it’s worth having a conversation with a doctor.

Several digestive disorders have symptoms similar to gallbladder cancer, including itchy skin. A doctor can run various tests to determine if your itchy skin is related to gallbladder cancer or a different issue.