Appendicitis is a medical emergency that happens when your appendix becomes sore, swollen, and diseased.
The appendix is a thin tube that is joined to the large intestine. It sits in the lower right part of your belly (abdomen). When you are a young child, your appendix is a working part of your immune system. The immune system helps your body to fight disease. When you are older, your appendix stops doing this. Other parts of your body keep helping to fight infection.
Appendicitis may be caused by various infections such as virus, bacteria, or parasites, in your digestive tract. Or it may happen when the tube that joins your large intestine and appendix is blocked or trapped by stool. Sometimes tumors can cause appendicitis.
Dr. Jarone Lee, MD, MPH, medical director, surgical intensive care unit, and quality director for surgical critical care in the Massachusetts General Hospital general departments of surgery and emergency medicine, answers some frequently asked questions about appendicitis.
Can it happen at any age?
Appendicitis can happen at any age, as long as you still have your appendix. In extremely rare circumstances, you can still have appendicitis if you have had your appendix removed – we call this stump appendicitis and it happens because the remnant of the appendix can become inflamed and infected, similar to appendicitis. So if you develop any pain in the abdomen, especially if it goes to your right lower area, you should be evaluated by a medical provider.
Are there precautions you can take to prevent a burst appendix?
Appendicitis is a medical emergency and if you wait too long, the appendix can burst. If you are worried you might have appendicitis, the only preventive measure to decrease the chances of your appendix bursting is to see a physician as soon as possible. Typically if you have appendicitis, the surgeons will have to remove it to prevent it from bursting. However, new research shows that getting antibiotics by itself without surgery could be a valid alternative for certain patients.
Is it life threatening?
Appendicitis is an emergency and is life threatening. As the appendix gets infected and inflamed, it can burst and spill the infection and stool all throughout the belly. This usually results in a longer and more difficult treatment course, including need for more antibiotics and possible many more surgical procedures. If the infection from the spillage is severe enough, the infection could spread into your blood stream and cause your other organs to fail. This organ failure drastically increases your risk of long-term complications and death.
What are the symptoms of appendicitis?
The symptoms of appendicitis usually start with difficult to describe discomfort in your belly that typically will go to your lower right side of your belly. As time goes on, the pain usually worsens and you will start feeling worse overall. Also you should feel like you do not want to eat and have nausea and vomiting. You could also have fever, feeling tired, and sometimes diarrhea. Typical symptoms are as follows:
Pain in the abdomen is the most common symptom. This pain:
• May start in the area around your belly button and move to the lower right-hand side of your belly. It may also start in the lower right-hand side of your belly.
• Often gets worse as time goes on.
• May feel worse when you are moving, taking deep breaths, being touched, and coughing or sneezing.
• May be felt all over your belly if your appendix bursts.
Other common symptoms include:
• Upset stomach and vomiting
• Loss of appetite
• Fever and chills
• Trouble having a bowel movement (constipation)
• Loose stool (diarrhea)
• Trouble passing gas
• Swollen belly
Unfortunately, your own symptoms may vary. Many patients with appendicitis could have only some of these symptoms. Some people do not have any of these symptoms besides just pain in the belly. Also, appendicitis symptoms may look like other health problems. If you are worried about appendicitis, always see your healthcare provider to be sure.
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