Overview

Gallstones are small stones that form in the gallbladder. They are usually made of cholesterol - a type of fat found in your blood.

Symptoms of gallstones

In most cases, gallstones don't cause any symptoms and don't need to be treated.

But a gallstone can become trapped in an opening (duct) inside the gallbladder. This can trigger a sudden, intense pain around your tummy. This pain usually lasts between 1 and 5 hours. It's known as biliary colic.

Some people with gallstones can also develop complications. These include inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis). This can cause:

  • persistent pain
  • jaundice
  • a fever

When gallstones cause symptoms or complications, it's known as gallstone disease or cholelithiasis.

Read about the symptoms of gallstones

The gallbladder

The gallbladder is a small, pouch-like organ. It's found underneath the liver. Its main purpose is to store and concentrate bile.

Bile is a liquid produced by the liver to help digest fats. It's passed from the liver into the gallbladder through a series of channels. These are known as bile ducts.

Causes of gallstones

Doctors believe that gallstones develop because of a chemical imbalance in the bile inside the gallbladder. In most cases, the levels of cholesterol in the bile become too high. The excess cholesterol then forms into stones.

Gallstones are very common. Around 1 in 10 adults has gallstones. But only a minority of people develop symptoms.

You're more at risk of developing gallstones if you're:

  • overweight or obese
  • female – particularly if you've had children
  • 40 or over – the risk increases as you get older

Treating gallstones

Treatment is usually only necessary if gallstones are causing:

  • symptoms – such as abdominal pain
  • complications – such as jaundice or acute pancreatitis

If this is the case, your doctor may recommend keyhole surgery to remove the gallbladder. This procedure is known as a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. It's relatively simple to perform. There is a low risk of complications.

You can lead a normal life without a gallbladder. Your liver will still produce bile to digest food.

Outlook

You can treat most cases of gallstone disease with surgery. Only very severe cases can be life threatening. This is usually only if you are already in poor health. Deaths from gallstone disease are rare.


Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.

Page last reviewed: 22 December 2020
Next review due: 22 December 2023

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