Complications of gallstones

Gallstones may cause complications, including:

  • Obstruction of the common bile duct.
  • Inflammation or infection of the gallbladder (acute cholecystitis).
  • Inflammation or infection of the liver (cholangitis), which can occur when gallstones enter the common bile duct. Though rare, this can lead to the death of tissue.
  • Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).

Overall, about 15% of people with gallstones have them in the common bile duct. But if you are a young person with gallstones, your chances of having them in your common bile duct are lower. Your chances of getting gallstones in your common bile duct increase as you get older. As many as 50% of elderly people with gallstones have them in the common bile duct.1

Less common complications can include:

  • Severe infection with pus filling the gallbladder (empyema).
  • An abnormal connection (fistula) between the gallbladder and small intestine.
  • A large gallstone blocking the small intestine (gallstone ileus).
  • A hole in the gallbladder (perforation).
  • Gallbladder cancer.

Doctors seldom recommend surgery to remove gallstones that are not causing symptoms if the only purpose is to prevent gallbladder cancer.


  1. Friedman LS (2008). Diseases of the biliary tract section of Liver, biliary tract, and pancreas. In SJ McPhee et al., eds., Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 47th ed., pp. 597–604. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Last Updated: July 22, 2009

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