What is cholecystitis?

Normal anatomy

Figure 1. Normal anatomy

Cholecystitis is the inflammation (or swelling) of the gallbladder. The gallbladder is located towards the upper right abdominal. It stores bile, which is responsible for breaking down the body’s fats. Cholecystitis is caused by gallstones blocking the entrance of the gallbladder. This causes the bile to build up and the gallbladder to inflame. Cholecystitis can cause serious abdominal pain. You should consult a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms.

What are the symptoms of cholecystitis?

  • Persistent pain in the upper right abdominal region
  • Abdominal pain that extends to the right shoulder and back
  • Symptoms that are not better when over-the-counter pain relievers are taken, when body positioning is changed, or gas is released
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Bloating
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

Who is at risk to get cholecystitis?


Figure 2. Cholecystitis

  • Women over 50
  • People over 60
  • People who have a family history of gallstones
  • People whose diet is high in fat and cholesterol
  • People who are overweight or obese
  • People who have diabetes
  • People of Native American, Scandinavian, and Hispanic descent

How common is cholecystitis?

Cholecystitis is not uncommon. About 10% to 20% of Americans have gallstones, and about half of those will develop cholecystitis.

How is cholecystitis diagnosed?

Physical examination: If a doctor touches the area while the patient is taking a deep breath and feels the air flow stop around the gallbladder area, this is a positive sign that the gallbladder is inflamed.

Ultrasound: An ultrasound is a test that allows doctors to see the size, shape, and objects in and around the gallbladder. The ultrasound will show gallstones, inflammation of the gallbladder, and extra fluid that may be present.

Blood test: Blood tests can be ordered to find signs of an infection, or to prove that inflammation is present.

How can cholecystitis be treated?

Antibiotics: Antibiotics may be prescribed if there is an infection. The doctor may also prescribe a pain medication to help with the pain.

Cholecystectomy: If the condition worsens the doctor may suggest getting a cholecystectomy. A cholecystectomy is a low-risk surgical procedure that removes the gallbladder from the body. The surgery usually only lasts about one hour and the patient is given general anesthesia. One does not need a gallbladder in order to digest food properly.

What is the outlook?

There is a very low death rate that occurs after a cholecystectomy. In the majority of cases, a cholecystectomy provides relief to most symptoms. If cholecystitis is treated only with medication, there is a higher rate of the abdominal pain coming back. There is a higher risk of death for patients who do not take care of the condition early on. If openings form in the gallbladder, dangerous complications can occur.

What complications can occur if cholecystitis is left untreated?

  • Enlarged gallbladder: If left untreated, the gallbladder may swell to a size that is very uncomfortable. Swelling also increases the risk of the gallbladder tearing, which could lead to infection or tissue death.
  • Infection within the gallbladder: If too much bile builds up within the gallbladder, the bile may become infected. The infected bile can then leak to the lining of the abdomen and other organs to cause more complications.
  • Death of gallbladder tissue: If tearing occurs and the blood flow comes to a stop, the tissue can die and the gallbladder can burst.

How can cholecystitis be prevented?

Diet: Eating a diet of healthy fats and fruits and vegetables plays a big role in preventing gallstones. Foods such as eggs, soybeans, and peanuts, in particular, lower the risk of preventing gallstones.

Exercise: Exercising for both men and women, even if they are obese, may greatly reduce the risk of getting gallstones. Exercise helps reduce cholesterol. Lowering cholesterol levels decreases the chance of getting gallstones.


  • Han, S., & Chen, Y. (2012). Diagnosis and treatment of zanthogranulomatous cholecystitis: a report of 39 cases. Cell Biochemistry and Biophysics, 64(2), 131-135. Doi: 10.1007/s12013-012-9381-y
  • NHS Choices. (2012, March 7). Retrieved May 9, 2013, from NHS Choices: Cholecystitis, acute - Complications.
  • Schirmer, B. D., Winters, K. L., & Edlich, R. (2005). Cholelithiasis and Cholecystitis. Journal of Long-Term Effects of Medical Implants, 329-338.

© Copyright 1995-2013 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 7/31/2013…#15265