What Is Gallbladder Disease?

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Gallbladder disease occurs when there is inflammation, an infection, or blockages in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small, saclike organ located under the liver. It stores and concentrates bile produced by the liver. 

When the stomach and intestines digest food (especially fatty food), the gallbladder releases bile to the small intestine through the common bile duct. Gallbladder problems happen when a bile duct becomes blocked.

Gallbladder disease encompasses many conditions, such as gallstones and cholecystitis. Common symptoms include pain in the right upper abdomen, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Gallbladder disease is usually diagnosed with blood tests and imaging studies. 

This article discusses the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for gallbladder disease.

A woman holding a pillow in pain

Jelena Stanojkovic / Getty Images

Types of Gallbladder Disease

There are several types of gallbladder disease, ranging from mild to serious. Types of gallbladder disease include:

  • Biliary colic: The mildest type, it occurs when a gallstone becomes lodged in a bile duct.
  • Acute cholecystitis: Sudden swelling and irritation of the gallbladder occurs when a bile duct becomes temporarily blocked.
  • Chronic cholecystitis: After repeated bouts of acute cholecystitis, the gallbladder becomes thick and hard and cannot release bile normally.
  • Gallstones: Hard deposits in the gallbladder made up of bilirubin or calcium and cholesterol salts cause sudden pain when lodged in a bile duct.
  • Choledocholithiasis: Occurs when a gallstone blocks the common bile duct (about 1 in 7 people with gallstones develop a blockage of the common bile duct)
  • Gallbladder cancer: A rare cancer, such as adenocarcinoma, can begin in the gallbladder. 

Symptoms of Gallbladder Disease

The symptoms of gallbladder disease vary by the type and severity of the condition. Often, there are no symptoms when gallbladder disease starts. It’s estimated that up to 80% of gallstones do not cause symptoms. Once a stone becomes lodged in a bile duct, symptoms start. 

Common symptoms of gallbladder disease include:

  • Pain in the upper right abdomen 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of eyes (jaundice)
  • Dark urine
  • Light, clay-colored stools 

Symptoms of biliary colic include:

  • Gripping or gnawing pain
  • Pain that radiates (spreads) to the upper back or breastbone 
  • Rapid heart rate 
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure 

Symptoms of acute cholecystitis include:

  • Constant, severe abdominal pain
  • Pain that increases when breathing in 
  • Fever and chills 

Symptoms of chronic cholecystitis include:

  • Abdominal pain after eating
  • Gas
  • Chronic diarrhea 

Gallbladder disease is more common in women than men, especially after age 40. This may be because pregnancy and birth control pills are gallstone risk factors. 

What Causes Gallbladder Disease?

Gallbladder disease occurs when the gallbladder becomes swollen, irritated, or infected. This usually happens when gallstones become lodged in a bile duct, and bile becomes trapped in the gallbladder, leading to irritation and pressure. Gallbladder tumors can also cause blockages but are very rare.

Gallstone risk factors include:

How Is Gallbladder Disease Diagnosed?

Gallbladder disease is diagnosed with a physical exam, medical history, blood tests, and imaging studies. Your healthcare provider will feel your abdomen during a physical exam and ask you to point to the pain. They will ask about your symptoms, how long they have lasted, and when they worsen. 

Blood tests to diagnose gallbladder disease include:

Imaging studies to diagnose gallbladder disease include:

Treatment Options for Gallbladder Disease

There are several options for gallbladder disease treatment. The treatment plan depends on different factors, such as the type of disease, how advanced it is, and your overall health. 

If you develop severe abdominal pain, call your healthcare provider right away. 


A blockage or infection in the gallbladder is serious and can even be life-threatening when left untreated. Gallbladder surgery is an effective treatment that cures the disease and prevents future attacks. Types of gallbladder surgery include:

  • Laparoscopic cholecystectomy: Removal of the gallbladder using small surgical cuts 
  • Open cholecystectomy: Removal of the gallbladder by making a large incision in the upper-right part of the abdomen
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) and sphincterotomy: A surgical cut in the muscle of the common bile duct to allow gallstones to pass

You may need emergency surgery if you have: 

  • Tissue death in the gallbladder (gangrene)
  • A hole in the wall of the gallbladder (perforation)
  • An inflamed pancreas (pancreatitis)
  • A blocked bile duct
  • An inflamed bile duct 


Medications may be used to treat gallbladder disease, especially if the gallbladder has become infected. Treatments for gallbladder include:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids
  • Antibiotics 
  • Pain medications 

Lifestyle Changes

Fortunately, there are lifestyle changes that you can make on your own to prevent your risk of gallbladder disease and prevent future attacks. A low-fat diet, regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight can both treat and prevent gallbladder disease.

Complications Associated With Gallbladder Disease

Gallbladder disease is treatable. However, when left untreated, it can lead to serious complications, including:

  • Gangrene: Dead tissue caused by an infection
  • Perforation: Hole in the gallbladder 
  • Pancreatitis: Inflammation of the pancreas 
  • Empyema: Pus in the gallbladder
  • Peritonitis: Inflammation of the lining of the abdomen
  • Injury to bile ducts

Is Gallbladder Disease Preventable?

Gallbladder disease cannot always be prevented, but lifestyle changes can lower your risk. Both diet and exercise can protect you from gallbladder disease. 

Cholesterol contributes to the formation of gallstones, so avoiding high-cholesterol foods can lower your risk. These include fatty cuts of meat, butter, lard, and cream. 

Avoiding excess weight can also protect you from gallbladder disease. Obesity increases the bile's cholesterol, leading to more gallstones. Losing weight may lower your risk of gallbladder disease. 

What to Eat With Gallbladder Disease

Your diet can affect your risk for gallbladder disease. To lower your risk, focus on fiber-rich foods and healthy fats. These include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fish oil 
  • Olive oil 

To lower your risk of gallbladder disease, avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates. Foods to avoid include:

  • Fried foods
  • Desserts
  • Soda 

Outlook for Gallbladder Disease

Gallbladder disease can be cured by removing the gallbladder. Most people who have gallbladder surgery make a full recovery. We do not need a gallbladder to survive. Removing the gallbladder also prevents any future attacks. 

See your healthcare provider if you develop symptoms of gallbladder disease that keep coming back. This is especially important if you develop sudden, severe abdominal pain.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Gallbladder disease.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Gallbladder disease.

  3. MedlinePlus. Acute cholecystitis.

  4. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Gallstones.

  5. MedlinePlus. Choledocholithiasis.

  6. American Cancer Society. What is gallbladder cancer?.

  7. National Organization for Rare Diseases. Acute cholecystitis.

  8. MedlinePlus. Chronic cholecystitis.

  9. National Health Service. Gallstones prevention.

  10. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Eating, diet, & nutrition for gallstones.

By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.