Bile is a liquid released by the liver. It contains cholesterol, bile salts, and waste products such as bilirubin. Bile salts help your body break down (digest) fats. Bile passes out of the liver through the bile ducts and is stored in the gallbladder. After a meal, it is released into the small intestine.
When the bile ducts become blocked, bile builds up in the liver, and jaundice (yellow color of the skin) develops due to the increasing levels of bilirubin in the blood.
The possible causes of a blocked bile duct include:
The goal of treatment is to relieve the blockage. Stones may be removed using an endoscope during an ERCP.
In some cases, surgery is required to bypass the blockage. The gallbladder will usually be surgically removed if the blockage is caused by gallstones. Your health care provider may prescribe antibiotics if an infection is suspected.
If the blockage is caused by cancer, the duct may need to be widened. This procedure is called endoscope or percutaneous (through the skin next to the liver) dilation. A tube may need to be placed to allow drainage.
If the blockage is not corrected, it can lead to life-threatening infection and a dangerous buildup of bilirubin.
If the blockage lasts a long time, chronic liver disease can result. Most obstructions can be treated with endoscopy or surgery. Obstructions caused by cancer often have a worse outcome.
Left untreated, the possible complications include infections, sepsis, and liver disease, such as biliary cirrhosis.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you notice a change in the color of your urine and stools or you develop jaundice.
Be aware of any risk factors you have, so that you can get prompt diagnosis and treatment if a bile duct becomes blocked. The blockage itself may not be preventable.
Afdhal NH. Diseases of the gallbladder and bile ducts. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 158.
Jenifer K. Lehrer, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Frankford-Torresdale Hospital, Aria Health System, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.