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Cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation)

3-minute read

Cholecystitis is an inflammation of the gallbladder, often caused by gallstones. It can be very painful and usually needs prompt medical treatment.

What is cholecystitis?

The gallbladder is a small organ underneath the liver on the right side of the upper abdomen. It stores a fluid called bile which is produced by the liver to help with digestion. Cholecystitis is a condition that occurs when the gallbladder becomes inflamed.

Cholecystitis most often occurs when gallstones block the tube leading out of the gallbladder. This results in a build-up of bile, which causes inflammation.

Cholecystitis can also be caused by other problems with the bile duct, a tumour, problems with blood supply to the gallbladder, and other infections.

The condition may settle down on its own, but cholecystitis tends to come back. Most people eventually need surgery to remove the gallbladder. Sometimes, cholecystitis can lead to a serious infection, a torn gallbladder, or death of some of the tissue in the gallbladder.

Symptoms

Symptoms of cholecystitis often appear after you’ve eaten a large, fatty meal. They include:

  • an intense pain in the middle or right side of your upper abdomen, or between your shoulders
  • indigestion, especially after fatty food
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • fever

Don’t ignore the pain because cholecystitis can lead to complications. An infection in your abdomen can be very serious. See your doctor if the pain lasts for more than 3 hours. If the pain is very bad, go straight to your nearest hospital emergency department. 

Anatomy of the liver and gallbladder
Anatomy of the liver and gallbladder

Diagnosis

If a doctor suspects you have cholecystitis, they will examine you and ask you about your medical history. They may order an x-ray and/or an ultrasound of your abdomen. They may also do a blood test to look for signs of infection.

Treatment of cholecystitis

If you have cholecystitis, it may settle down if you eat a low-fat diet. You may also be given medicine to dissolve gallstones.

If you go to hospital, you will be fed and hydrated through an intravenous drip and you will have antibiotics to fight infection. You will probably also need medicine for pain relief.

Most people have their gallbladder removed 2 to 3 days after they are admitted to hospital. In this operation, the gallbladder is removed using laparoscopy. This is a type of keyhole surgery performed in the belly area. You don’t need your gallbladder, and after the operation, bile will flow straight from your liver to your small intestine.

More information

Last reviewed: February 2018

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