Symptoms of gallstones 

Many people with gallstones do not have any symptoms and are unaware they have them unless they are detected during tests carried out for another reason.

However, symptoms can develop when a gallstone temporarily blocks one of the bile ducts. These are the tube-like structures that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder and then into the digestive system.

In most cases, this causes abdominal (tummy) pain, although some people also experience other symptoms if the blockage is more severe or a blockage develops in another part of the digestive system.

Abdominal pain

The most common symptom of gallstones is sudden, severe abdominal pain that usually lasts one to five hours (although it can sometimes last just a few minutes). This is known as biliary colic.

The pain can be felt:

  • in the centre of your abdomen, between your breastbone and belly button
  • just under the ribs on your right-hand side, from where it may spread to your side or shoulder blade

The pain is constant and is not relieved when you go to the toilet, pass wind or are sick. It is sometimes triggered by eating fatty foods, but it can occur at any time of day and it may wake you up during the night.

Biliary colic usually happens infrequently. After an episode of pain, it may be several weeks or months before you experience another episode.

In addition to the pain of biliary colic, some people also have periods where they sweat excessively and feel sick or vomit.

Doctors refer to gallstones that cause episodes of biliary colic as 'uncomplicated gallstone disease'.

Other symptoms

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 38°C (100.4°F) or above
  • more persistent pain
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • itchy skin
  • diarrhoea
  • chills or shivering attacks
  • confusion
  • 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 episodes of biliary colic, you should make an appointment with your GP.

Contact your GP immediately for advice if you develop:

  • jaundice
  • abdominal pain lasting longer than eight hours
  • a high temperature and chills
  • abdominal pain so intense that you cannot find a position to relieve it

If it is not possible to contact your GP immediately, phone your local out-of-hours service or call NHS 111.

Page last reviewed: 18/11/2013

Next review due: 18/11/2015