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Gallstones and sickle cell disease


Gallstones forming in the gallbladder is a common problem for people with sickle cell disease. It is also called cholelithiasis (koh lah li THY ah sis).

What is the gallbladder?

The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ that is located behind the liver.

The main purpose of the gallbladder is to store and release bile. Bile is made in the liver and is helpful in breaking down fatty foods in the small intestines. Bile flows from the liver to the gallbladder through a small channel called the bile duct.

Gall bladder
Location of gall bladder

What are gallstones?

Gallstones are hard rock-like deposits that form in the bile duct or in the gallbladder. Gallstones are solid and can vary in size from a grain of salt to the size of a golf ball. Gallstones can be formed from different substances in the body, including cholesterol (keh LES te rahl) and bilirubin (BI lee roo ben). In people without sickle cell disease, 80 percent of gallstones are formed from cholesterol. Gallstones form when the liver produces more cholesterol than the body can break down. In people with sickle cell disease, most gallstones are produced from excess bilirubin, which is caused by the constant breakdown of red blood cells. Biliary sludge (formed when excess bile settles in the duct) can also lead to gallstones forming in people with sickle cell disease.

Are gallstones harmful to my body?

Gallstones are usually not harmful. You might have discomfort when gallstones settle in the bile duct or collect in the gallbladder; however, sometimes the gallstones can lead to serious health problems. Some of the symptoms of gallstones are:

  • Pain,
  • Fever (sign of infection),
  • Nausea, and
  • Vomiting.

What are other signs and symptoms of gallstones?

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (also called jaundice)
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored stool
  • Fever
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Severe pain in the upper abdomen that can move to the shoulders and back

How are gallstones diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine you, take blood tests, and order an ultrasound of your abdomen to confirm the diagnosis.

What can I do to help prevent gallstones?

You may not be able to prevent gallstones. Thirty percent to 50 percent of people with sickle cell disease will develop gallstones. Even so, you can decrease your chances of having gallstones. Your risk for getting gallstones is increased by these factors: Obesity, diet high in fatty foods and low in fiber, lack of exercise, smoking, heavy drinking (alcohol), and not drinking enough fluids.

What are some treatments for gallstones?

If you are not having problems from the gallstones, your doctor may choose to watch the condition. If you are having pain your doctor may choose to treat the symptoms in some or all of these ways:

  • IV fluids to keep you from becoming dehydrated (too little fluid in the body)
  • Medicines to relieve nausea and vomiting
  • Pain medicine
  • Antibiotics if you develop a fever
  • Removing the gallbladder through surgery


If you have questions or want to learn more about gallstones and sickle cell disease, talk with your child’s Hematology team.


This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

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