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Gallstones are hardened deposits that can form in your gallbladder, a small, pear-shaped organ found just below your liver on the right side of your abdomen. The gallbladder’s role is mainly to store bile, a digestive liquid produced by your liver. The common bile duct joins the cystic duct from the gallbladder with the common hepatic duct from the liver, and runs through the pancreas. Bile flows into the gallbladder from the common hepatic duct and through the cystic duct. Sometimes the substances in the bile, particularly cholesterol, stick together to form stones of various sizes. It is possible to have gallstones and not know it, but when a stone is big enough to become stuck or lodged, it can block the flow of bile.
The stones usually pass in most people. If the stones are stuck, they can cause pain, and they could cause inflammation and infection. Some people must have their gallbladder surgically removed. Either situation could potentially lead to sepsis. Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s often deadly response to infection.
Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and treatment for survival. Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder), pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly) and/or amputations.
It is possible to have gallstones and not know it. However, if the stones are big enough and are causing irritation or blockage in the ducts, you could experience some of the following signs and symptoms. They often come on very suddenly, without warning:
- Worsening pain in the upper right part of your abdomen
- Intensifying pain just below your breastbone
- Back pain between your shoulder blades
- Pain in your right shoulder
- Nausea and vomiting
If you experience any of these worsening signs, please seek emergency help:
- Abdominal pain so intense that you can’t sit still or find a comfortable position
- Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes
- Tea-colored urine
- High fever with chills
If your gallbladder is infected, you may also have signs of sepsis, which include:
- Shivering, fever or lower than usual body temperature (hypothermia)
- Extreme pain or discomfort (“worst ever”)
- Pale or discolored skin
- Sleepiness, difficulty rousing
- “I feel like I may die”
- Short of breath
Anyone can develop gallstones, but some people, such as women or those over 60 years, are at higher risk. Other risk factors include:
- Sudden and quick weight loss
- Eating a high-fat, high-cholesterol, or low-fiber diet
- Family history of gallbladder disease
- Taking some cholesterol-lowering medications or hormone therapy drugs with estrogen
- American Indian or Mexican-American ancestry
Gallstones may cause an inflammation of your gallbladder, and blockage of the ducts that lead to and from the gallbladder. This can lead to infection.
Treatment for gallstones depends on how much they are affecting you and if you are at risk for more stones and blockages. Gallbladder surgery removes your gallbladder, so you will no longer have stones. There are some medications that may dissolve some stones, but they are not commonly prescribed as they can take several months—even years—to work and they are not always effective.
Not all gallstones can be prevented, but you can reduce your risk by following a healthy diet and losing weight in a healthy manner (not too drastically or quickly) if you are overweight.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Updated December 13, 2017