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Cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation)

4-minute read

What is cholecystitis?

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

The gallbladder is a small organ underneath the liver on the right side of the upper abdomen. It stores a thick dark green fluid called bile which the liver produces to help with digestion.

What are the symptoms of cholecystitis?

Symptoms of cholecystitis include:

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

Symptoms often appear after someone has eaten a large, fatty meal.

If you are in pain, don't ignore it because cholecystitis is a serious condition 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.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes cholecystitis?

Cholecystitis most frequently occurs when gallstones (stones that form within the bile coming down from the liver) 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, such as a tumour, problems with blood supply to the gallbladder, and infections.

The condition might 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 liver inflammation, a serious infection, a torn gallbladder, or the death of some of the tissue in the gallbladder.

Anatomy of the liver and gallbladder
Anatomy of the upper abdominal area, showing the liver and gallbladder.

How is cholecystitis diagnosed?

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

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How is cholecystitis treated?

Cholecystitis can sometimes 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 may 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.

Resources and support

If you need to know more about gallstones, or to get advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

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Last reviewed: May 2020

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