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What Is It?

Cholecystitis is an inflammation of the gallbladder. The gallbladder is the small sac-like organ located in the upper right side of the abdomen, just below the liver. It is attached to the main duct that carries bile from the liver into the intestine. The gallbladder temporarily stores bile, which is a liquid that contains a fat-digesting substance produced in the liver. During a meal, the gallbladder contracts, and bile moves from the gallbladder through small, tube-like passages (called the cystic duct and the common bile duct) into the small intestine. Here, bile mixes with food to help break down fats.

Cholecystitis usually develops when a person has gallstones, which are rock-like deposits that form inside the gallbladder. If a gallstone blocks the cystic duct (the outflow from the gallbladder), bile becomes trapped in the gallbladder. Chemicals in the trapped bile or a bacterial infection can then lead to inflammation of the gallbladder.

There are two types of cholecystitis:

  • Acute cholecystitis is the sudden inflammation of the gallbladder that causes marked abdominal pain, often with nausea, vomiting, and fever.

  • Chronic cholecystitis is a lower intensity inflammation of the gallbladder that lasts a long time. It may be caused by repeat attacks of acute cholecystitis. Chronic cholecystitis may cause intermittent mild abdominal pain, or no symptoms at all. Damage to the walls of the gallbladder leads to a thickened, scarred gallbladder. Ultimately, the gallbladder can shrink and lose its ability to store and release bile.

Gallstones alone can cause episodes of crampy abdominal pain without any infection. This is called biliary colic.

Women are more likely than men to get gallstones. The risk of gallstones also is higher in:

  • Anyone older than age 60

  • Women who are pregnant or have had several pregnancies

  • Women who take estrogen replacement therapy or birth control pills

  • Obese people

  • People who have lost weight rapidly

  • People who eat a high-fat diet

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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