Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is cholecystitis?

Cholecystitis is the medical name for inflammation of the gallbladder. The gallbladder assists in the digestive process by storing and releasing the substance called bile into the small intestine, which helps break down food. Cholecystitis is most often the result of an obstruction within a duct in the gallbladder. Gallstones (cholelithiasis) are the most common cause of obstruction within the gallbladder. Left untreated, the inflammation may lead to infection. Other less common causes of cholecystitis include infection, injury and tumors.

Inflammation of the gallbladder is a common disease in the United States. The disease is more common in women than in men, and it occurs most frequently after the age of 40. There are two types of cholecystitis: acute, which comes on suddenly, and chronic, which is longstanding and persistent. Gallstones are the most common cause for both types. Recurrent episodes of gallstones lead to thickening of the gallbladder wall and make the gallbladder less effective at removing bile and other substances. Ultimately, the condition may become chronic.

The signs and symptoms of cholecystitis can come and go or remain constant. The disease course varies among individuals. Some people with cholecystitis have no symptoms at all, while others may have severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, and blockage of the bile ducts that may lead to infection.

Acute gallstone attacks can be managed with intravenous medications. If repeated episodes occur and lead to chronic cholecystitis, the preferred treatment is surgical removal of the gallbladder. Although not everyone is able to prevent gallstone formation and cholecystitis, you may be able to reduce your risk by following a healthy, low-cholesterol diet.

Left untreated, cholecystitis can lead to serious complications, such as tissue damage, tears in the gallbladder, and infection that spreads to other parts of the body. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms such as high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), severe abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, and nausea with or without vomiting.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for cholecystitis but your symptoms persist, recur, or cause you concern.

What are the symptoms of cholecystitis?

Cholecystitis causes a backup of bile in the gallbladder that may result in a number of symptoms. The symptoms can vary in intensity among individuals.

Common symptoms of cholecystitis

You may experience cholecystitis symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times, any of these cholecystitis symptoms can be severe:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal symptoms that occur within minutes after a meal
  • Abdominal tenderness
  • Clay-colored stools
  • Fever and chills
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Pain that radiates from your abdomen to your right shoulder or back
  • Sweating
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, cholecystitis can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

What causes cholecystitis?

Cholecystitis is caused by multiple factors, including obstruction of a bile duct by gallstones, infection, injury, or tumor. The most common cause of cholecystitis is cholelithiasis, or gallstones, that cause obstructions in the bile ducts. Cholecystitis caused by infection, trauma and tumors can result in possible blockage and perforation of the gallbladder.

When acute cholecystitis occurs, it may interfere with the flow of bile and cause bile to become trapped in the gallbladder, resulting in inflammation and possible bacterial infection. In rare cases, perforation of the gallbladder is also possible. Chronic cholecystitis is commonly caused by recurring episodes of acute cholecystitis, resulting in thickening of the gallbladder walls and a loss of gallbladder function.

What are the risk factors for cholecystitis?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing cholecystitis. Not all people with risk factors will get cholecystitis. Risk factors for cholecystitis include:

  • Age over 40 years
  • Diabetes
  • Female gender
  • Gallstones
  • Injury to the gallbladder
  • Overweight or obesity

Reducing your risk of cholecystitis

Although some risk factors, such as age and gender, cannot be modified, you may be able to lower your risk of cholecystitis through lifestyle changes including:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Losing weight slowly
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

How is cholecystitis treated?

Treatment for cholecystitis begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. To determine if you have cholecystitis, your health care provider may ask you to provide blood samples and undergo diagnostic tests.

Although acute cholecystitis may resolve on its own, it is more common for people with cholecystitis to be hospitalized and given antibiotics to prevent infection. Food intake is usually stopped, and intravenous fluids are administered to let the digestive system rest. In addition, medications may be administered for severe abdominal pain.

Many people with cholecystitis will need to undergo surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy). Because the gallbladder is not an essential organ, most people who have had a cholecystectomy can live a normal life afterwards.

What are the potential complications of cholecystitis?

You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of cholecystitis include:

  • Bile duct injury
  • Gallbladder infection, including gallbladder empyema (pus in the gallbladder)
  • Gallbladder perforation
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Peritonitis (an infection of the lining that surrounds the abdomen)
  • Sepsis (a life-threatening bacterial blood infection)
Was this helpful?
  1. Acute cholecystitis. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  2. Chronic cholecystitis. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 18
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