Most cases of gallstones don't 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 one to five 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 when you go to the toilet, pass wind or are sick. It's sometimes triggered by eating fatty foods, but may occur at any time of day and it 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 experience another episode.
Some people also have periods where they sweat excessively and feel sick or vomit.
When gallstones cause episodes of biliary colic, it is known as 'uncomplicated gallstone disease'.
In a small number of people, 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 (100.4F) 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 seek medical advice
If you think you may be experiencing biliary colic, you should make an appointment with your GP.
Contact your GP immediately for advice if you develop:
- abdominal pain lasting longer than eight hours
- a high temperature and chills
- abdominal pain so intense that you can't find a position to relieve it
If it's not possible to contact your GP immediately, phone your local out-of-hours service or call NHS 111.