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Dr QM Leong
Dr QM Leong

When To Go To A Hospital For Gallbladder Attack: 5 Warning Signs

The gallbladder, a petite organ nestled beneath the liver, is responsible for storing and releasing bile—a liquid essential for fat digestion. 

At times, the gallbladder will face certain problems or infections causing it to flare up into what may be called a gallbladder attack. Ranging from mild discomfort to intense pain, you might find yourself asking when to go to hospital for a gallbladder attack.

In the upcoming sections, we’ll delve into the origins and manifestations of these attacks and highlight five pivotal signs signalling the need for immediate hospital care for a gallbladder episode.


Warning Signs That You Should See A Doctor

While most gallbladder attacks are not life-threatening, understanding our bodies and recognising the early warning signs of potential health issues is paramount. You should go to the hospital and seek immediate medical attention for a gallbladder attack if you experience any of these five warning signs:


1. Intense Pain

One of the hallmark gallbladder attack symptoms is intense pain. This pain typically manifests in the upper right side of the abdomen. The pain can sometimes radiate to the right shoulder or back. It usually starts suddenly and may last for several hours.

This pain occurs when gallstones, hard particles that develop in the gallbladder, block the cystic duct leading out of the gallbladder. Such a blockage can lead to acute cholecystitis, an inflammation of the gallbladder, and may warrant emergency surgery.

2. Fever And Chills

Fever and chills accompanying abdominal pain can indicate a complication from gallbladder attacks known as acute cholecystitis. This condition implies that the gallbladder is inflamed, usually due to a blocked cystic duct. The inflammation can lead to serious infection if not treated promptly. 

A high fever coupled with chills signifies that the body is fighting an internal infection, and it’s crucial to consult a doctor without delay.


3. Prolonged Nausea And Vomiting

While both nausea and vomiting are symptoms of various illnesses, they indicate gallbladder attacks when coupled with the above symptoms. Persistent vomiting and an inability to keep food down might suggest a severe gallbladder issue or a blockage within the digestive system.

Do not ignore these symptoms and get immediate medical attention especially if these sensations last more than a few hours. 


4. Yellowing Of The Skin

A yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes, called Jaundice, indicates a bile duct blockage or liver problems. When gallstones block the bile ducts, bile—an essential digestive fluid—cannot reach the intestines and builds up in the blood, causing Jaundice. This symptom requires urgent medical attention, which could signify a severe gallbladder or liver issue.


5. Sudden Weight Loss And Appetite Changes

While many aspire to lose weight, sudden and unexplained weight loss, especially when accompanied by changes in appetite, can be a sign of a gallbladder problem. 

When the gallbladder is not functioning optimally, the digestion of fats becomes problematic, leading to unintended weight loss. Additionally, gallbladder issues might make certain foods, especially fatty ones, less appealing, leading to decreased appetite.


What Causes Gallbladder Attacks

Understanding the root causes of gallbladder attacks is the first step in recognising and effectively managing them. While the human body can sometimes exhibit confusing symptoms, a gallbladder attack should not be ignored. Here, we delve into the primary conditions that may result in gallbladder attacks.


Perhaps the most common cause of gallbladder attacks is due to developing gallstones. These are hard, pebble-like deposits that form inside the gallbladder. 

Gallstones develop when there’s an imbalance in the substances that make up bile—a digestive fluid produced by the liver. Surprisingly, around 5.9-21.9% of adults in Asian countries encounter such episodes.

A gallbladder attack occurs when these stones block the cystic duct—the tube through which bile flows from the gallbladder to the small intestine. This obstruction can lead to intense pain and is the main trigger behind most gallbladder attack symptoms.

It should also be noted that the symptoms of gallstones can be confused with kidney stones, and some signs should also be watched out for.


Acute cholecystitis is a term that refers to the inflammation of the gallbladder. This inflammation usually happens when a gallstone blocks the cystic duct. 

Apart from pain, acute cholecystitis can manifest other symptoms like fever or chills. If not treated in time, the gallbladder might fill with pus, leading to a severe, potentially life-threatening condition.

Luckily, the adoption of a healthy weight and lifestyle, including the reduction of high-cholesterol foods, can help in preventing acute cholecystitis.

Biliary Dyskinesia

Biliary dyskinesia is a less commonly discussed but significant cause of gallbladder attacks. It refers to the abnormal movement or function of the gallbladder. In this condition, the gallbladder either fails to squeeze out the bile correctly or does it too forcefully.

The result is similar to having a blockage, like with gallstones, but without any physical obstruction. Symptoms might mimic those of more common gallbladder problems, making it crucial for proper diagnosis.

Gallbladder Polyps

Gallbladder polyps are growths that emerge from the lining of the gallbladder’s walls. While most of these polyps are benign (non-cancerous), some might pose potentially serious complications. When these growths become large, they can interfere with the gallbladder’s function, leading to gallbladder attack symptoms. 

Although these polyps’ exact cause is unknown, they can be detected through imaging tests. Gallbladder surgery may be recommended as a preventive measure if they present a risk.

Risk Factors Increasing Gallbladder Attacks

Gallbladder attacks can be excruciatingly painful and are often caused by a combination of factors. Let’s explore the key risk factors that can significantly increase the likelihood of experiencing gallbladder attacks, shedding light on the importance of understanding and managing these factors for better gastrointestinal health.

Diet: A high-fat, high-cholesterol diet can contribute to the formation of gallstones.

Obesity: Being significantly overweight can increase cholesterol levels in bile, leading to stone formation.

Rapid Weight Loss: Quickly losing weight can prompt the liver to release extra cholesterol, potentially leading to gallstones.

Pregnancy: Elevated oestrogen levels during pregnancy can increase bile cholesterol.

Age: People above the age of 40 are at a higher risk.

Gender: Women, especially those who have been pregnant, are more likely to develop gallstones. 

Family History: A family history of gallbladder issues can increase your risk of gallbladder attacks. Genetics play a role in gallstone formation, and if close relatives have experienced gallbladder problems, it may indicate a hereditary predisposition. 

Discussing your family’s medical history with your healthcare provider is important for assessing your risk and developing preventive strategies.

Certain Diseases: Conditions such as liver cirrhosis or hemolytic anaemia can increase the risk of gallstones. 

They increase the risk of gallstones primarily due to changes in bile composition, leading to supersaturation with cholesterol or bilirubin, and impaired gallbladder function, resulting in stagnant and concentrated bile, which promotes gallstone formation.

Obesity can also lead to increased cholesterol production in the liver, contributing to gallstone formation. Diseases like diabetes, liver disease, and inflammatory bowel disease can disrupt normal bile production and flow, making gallstone development more likely.

Medications: Certain medications, especially those containing oestrogen, like birth control pills, may heighten risk. 

Oestrogen-based drugs, including hormone replacement therapy and oral contraceptives, may elevate cholesterol levels in bile, increasing the chances of gallstones. 

Additionally, specific cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as fibrates, can be associated with a higher risk of gallstones. If you are on these medications, consult your healthcare provider to monitor and manage any potential risks.


Immediate Steps To Take If You Suspect A Gallbladder Attack

Stay Calm: It’s paramount to remain calm when experiencing gallbladder attack symptoms. Panic can worsen the situation and cause undue stress.

Avoid Eating: Gallbladder attacks often occur after meals, especially high-fat ones. If you suspect an attack, refrain from eating further, as it can intensify symptoms.

Lie Down: Find a comfortable position, typically lying on your right side, which may provide some relief.

Over-the-counter Pain Relief: While not a long-term solution, pain relief medications like paracetamol can provide temporary relief. However, always consult a healthcare professional before taking any medication.

Seek Medical Assistance: If your symptoms persist, are severe, or you’re in significant pain, it’s essential to seek medical attention immediately. In acute cholecystitis or other complications, delay can have serious consequences.


Treatments For Gallbladder Attacks

Experiencing a gallbladder attack can be an excruciatingly painful and frightening ordeal. These attacks are often triggered by gallstones or other issues in the gallbladder, leading to intense pain in the upper abdomen, nausea, and vomiting. 

Fortunately, there are various treatments available to alleviate the symptoms and address the underlying causes of gallbladder attacks. In this section, we’ll explore some of the most common treatments and provide a brief explanation of each.

Pain Medication

Pain management is a crucial aspect of treating gallbladder attacks. Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or prescription medications can help alleviate the intense abdominal pain associated with an attack. 

However, it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional before taking any medication to ensure it’s safe and appropriate for your condition.

Dietary Adjustments

Long-term management of gallbladder attacks often involves dietary changes. Reducing the intake of fatty and greasy foods can help prevent future attacks. A healthcare provider or dietitian may provide guidance on a low-fat diet that is tailored to your specific needs.

Cholecystectomy (Gallbladder Removal)

When gallbladder attacks are recurrent or severe, surgical removal of the gallbladder, known as cholecystectomy, may be recommended. This procedure is one of the most effective ways to prevent future attacks. 

Fortunately, gallbladder removal is a common surgery and is typically performed laparoscopically, resulting in shorter recovery times.

Medication To Dissolve Gallstones

For individuals who are not suitable candidates for surgery, medications like Ursodiol or Chenodeoxycholic Acid may be prescribed to dissolve gallstones over time. These medications are typically used in cases where gallstones are composed of cholesterol and are smaller in size. 

However, this approach can take months to years to achieve results, and it may not be effective for all types of gallstones. Hence this form of treatment is rarely recommended.

Note: It’s essential to consult a healthcare provider before you take any medication.


Conclusion On When To Go To A Hospital For Gallbladder Attack

Recognising and responding to gallbladder attack symptoms is crucial. If not addressed, gallbladder attacks can lead to complications such as acute cholecystitis, which might require gallbladder surgery.

The blockage of the cystic duct, often by gallstones, is a common cause of such attacks. Prioritising your health by being aware and seeking medical attention promptly can prevent complications and ensure your well-being.

Should you experience symptoms or have concerns, always consult an expert in the field like Dr Leong. Your health and well-being are paramount; early intervention can make all the difference.

Schedule a consultation today.


Frequently Asked Questions On When To Go To A Hospital For Gallbladder Attack

Can I Prevent Gallbladder Attacks? 

While you cannot guarantee prevention, maintaining a balanced diet, low in saturated fats, and a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk.

Are Gallbladder Attacks And Gallstones The Same? 

Not exactly. Developing gallstones lead to the blocking of the cystic duct which may lead to gallbladder attacks.

Can Gallbladder Attacks Be Mistaken For Something Else? 

Symptoms can sometimes mimic conditions like heartburn, gastritis, or even heart attacks. Consult with a doctor for a proper diagnosis. 

If I Had One Gallbladder Attack, Would I Have More? 

It’s possible. Once you’ve had a gallbladder attack, the chances of having another one increase. Discussing preventive measures or possible gallbladder surgery with your doctor is advisable.

How Will Gallbladder Attacks Be Treated In Emergency Rooms?

Gallbladder attacks are typically treated with pain management, usually through intravenous medications, and diagnostic tests like ultrasound to assess the severity and cause of the attack. 

In severe cases or if complications arise, surgical intervention to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) may be necessary.

Can A Gallbladder Attack Last For Days?

Gallbladder attacks can vary in duration, but they typically do not last for days. Most gallbladder attacks last for a few hours, and if the pain persists beyond that timeframe or becomes severe, it’s essential to seek immediate medical attention as it may indicate a more serious issue or complications.