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Cholecystitis, acute Content Supplied by NHS Choices

Acute cholecystitis is inflammation (swelling) of the gallbladder. It is usually caused by a gallstone that becomes trapped in one of the ducts or openings of the gallbladder.

The most common symptoms of acute cholecystitis are:

  • a severe, sharp and constant pain in the upper right abdomen (tummy), which may be worse when breathing deeply or if the abdomen is touched
  • a high temperature, or fever, of 38C (100.4F) or above

Acute cholecystitis is not usually a medical emergency. However, without treatment, it can lead to a number of serious and potentially fatal complications, such as:

  • the death of the tissue of the gallbladder, called gangrenous cholecystitis, which can cause a serious infection
  • the gallbladder splitting open, known as a perforated gallbladder

Read more about complications of acute cholecystitis.

Therefore, if acute cholecystitis is suspected, immediate referral to hospital is recommended.  

What causes acute cholecystitis?

Gallstones are small stones that form in the gallbladder usually made of cholesterol.

If a gallstone becomes trapped in the main opening of the gallbladder, called the cystic duct, it can cause the gallbladder to become severely inflamed. Exactly why the blocked duct causes such severe inflammation is unclear.

Read more about the causes of acute cholecystitis.

Treating acute cholecystitis

Acute cholecystitis can first be treated with antibiotics to help relieve your symptoms. Surgery to remove the gallbladder is then often needed. This procedure is known as a cholecystectomy.

Emergency surgery is usually required to treat complications that arise from acute cholecystitis.

Read more about how acute cholecystitis is treated.

Who is affected?

Acute cholecystitis is an uncommon complication of gallstones. In England, it is estimated that 10-15% of the adult population have gallstones. In most cases, they do not cause symptoms.

About 1-4% of people with gallstones experience infrequent episodes of pain, known as biliary colic. Around one in five of these people develops acute cholecystitis if their gallbladder is not surgically removed.

In the UK, 16,884 cases of cholecystitis were reported between 2009 and 2010. Around two-thirds of these cases were in females.