Gallstones don't usually cause any symptoms. But if a gallstone blocks one of the bile ducts, it can cause sudden, severe abdominal pain, known as biliary colic.
Other symptoms may develop if the blockage is more severe or develops in another part of the digestive system.
Abdominal pain (biliary colic)
Gallstones can cause sudden, severe abdominal pain that usually lasts 1 to 5 hours, although it can sometimes last just a few minutes.
The pain can be felt:
- in the centre of your abdomen (tummy)
- just under the ribs on your right-hand side – it may spread from here to your side or shoulder blade
The pain is constant and isn't relieved by going to the toilet, passing wind or being sick.
It's sometimes triggered by eating fatty foods, but may occur at any time of day and may wake you up during the night.
Biliary colic doesn't happen often. After an episode of pain, it may be several weeks or months before you have another episode.
Some people also have periods where they sweat excessively and feel sick or vomit.
When gallstones cause episodes of biliary colic, it's known as uncomplicated gallstone disease.
Occasionally, gallstones can cause more serious problems if they obstruct the flow of bile for longer periods or move into other organs, such as the pancreas or small bowel.
If this happens, you may develop:
- a high temperature of 38C or above
- more persistent pain
- a rapid heartbeat
- yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
- itchy skin
- chills or shivering attacks
- a loss of appetite
Doctors refer to this more severe condition as complicated gallstone disease.
Read more about the complications of gallstones.
When to get medical advice
Make an appointment to see your GP if you think you may have biliary colic.
Contact your GP immediately for advice if you develop:
- abdominal pain lasting longer than 8 hours
- a high temperature and chills
- abdominal pain so intense that you can't find a position to relieve it