Appendicitis: Symptoms & How to Treat
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What is appendicitis?
Appendicitis is a medical emergency. If you think you have appendicitis, go to the ER. The sooner treatment or surgery is performed, the less likely you’ll have complications. —Dr. Chandra Manuelpillai
Appendicitis is an inflammation or infection in your appendix. Your appendix is a small pouch connected to your intestines. It’s in the lower, right side of your belly.
It’s thought that the appendix plays a role in immune function in children but not in adults.
Appendicitis starts because something blocks your appendix. It could be from stool, swollen lymph nodes, tumors, a parasite, or an infection. This creates inflammation and causes swelling and pain in the abdomen.
Appendicitis is usually treated with surgery to remove the appendix. Though sometimes, when caught early, it can be treated with antibiotics.
How do you check if you have appendicitis?
If you feel a sharp pain that’s only in the lower, right part of your belly, go to an emergency room. Or call 911. Especially if it got very painful, really fast (within 24 hours).
The appendix can burst (rupture), which can spread the infection throughout the body and be life-threatening.
Most common appendicitis symptoms
Symptoms I expect to hear: Pain that quickly, progressively worsens. It starts around the belly button, then localizes in the lower right abdomen with other symptoms like nausea, loss of appetite, constipation or diarrhea, and inability to pass gas or abdominal bloating. The pain often makes people want to stay still because it worsens with any movement. —Dr. Manuelpillai
The most common symptom of appendicitis is intense pain in the right, lower belly. You might feel it around your belly button first.
The pain gets worse with any movement, like when you cough, jump, or even hitting a bump on a car ride. It’s also very sensitive to the touch.
You also might have these symptoms:
What makes you more likely to get it
- More common in people ages 10 and 30
- Having a family member who had appendicitis increases your risk
- More common in males
What is the main cause of appendicitis?
Appendicitis happens when the appendix is blocked by something. Either stool, swollen lymph nodes, tumors, parasites, or infections and swelling of nearby organs.
The blockage creates inflammation or an infection. The appendix then swells until it bursts or is treated.
Treatment for appendicitis
In most cases of appendicitis, you’ll have emergency surgery to remove the appendix. You’ll also be given an antibiotic for the infection.
In some cases, a doctor may try antibiotics instead of surgery. Symptoms would need to be mild and no other complications like an abscess (collection of pus).
Your doctor will monitor you closely to make sure symptoms improve. People who are treated with antibiotics have an increased risk of getting appendicitis again.
Discuss your treatment options. Keep in mind that even if treatment is successful with just antibiotics, repeat episodes of appendicitis are common. So removing the appendix is the only absolute treatment for appendicitis. —Dr. Manuelpillai
Appendicitis is always treated with antibiotics, even when you have surgery. Which kind depends on your age and how severe your appendicitis is.
The doctor might also give you medication for the pain or nausea. You’ll also get intravenous (IV) fluids since you can’t eat until the infection is gone.
If your case is mild, you might be sent home with just oral antibiotics and pain medications. You’ll be told to follow a liquid diet until your symptoms of appendicitis are gone. Take all prescribed antibiotics. Watch for signs of the infection or inflammation getting worse (redness, swelling, or pain). If that happens, you might need emergency surgery.
Your surgeon will remove the appendix to prevent it from bursting. This is usually done through small incisions (laparoscopy). If you have a ruptured appendix, the surgery will include cleaning out the area to prevent infection.
If your appendix is removed, recovery from the surgery might take a few days to a few weeks. It will take longer to heal if your appendix burst. Keep the area of the surgery clean and dry and follow your discharge instructions. Watch for signs of infection (redness, swelling, or pain). Take any prescribed antibiotics.
If your appendicitis was treated with only antibiotics, you need to monitor your symptoms afterwards. If they get worse, call your doctor right away or go to the ER.
Could that stomachache in your child be appendicitis?
Appendicitis is most common in teenagers and young adults. It can happen to children, though. Kids tend to have vague symptoms, such as not wanting to eat, or loose stools.
Often diagnosis and treatment are delayed in children. The chance of their appendix bursting is then higher. Treatment—antibiotics or surgery—is the same.
Dr. Manuelpillai is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician. She received her undergraduate degree in Health Science Studies from Quinnipiac University (2002). She then went on to graduated from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Sciences/The Chicago Medical School (2007) where she served on the Executive Student Council, as well as was the alternate delegate to the AMA/ISMS-MSS Governing Council and the student representative to the Illinois State Medical Society (ISMS) Education and Health Workforce committee. She completed an internship year with UCLA-Harbor Medical Center's Department of Internal Medicine followed by an emergency medicine residency program at Boston Medical Center (2011) while also serving as the resident representative to the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) committee on Student Health & Sports Medicine. She then started working at Saints Medical Center (later Lowell General Hospital/Saints Campus and Main Campus) in Lowell Massachusetts where she served as the Continuous Quality Improvement Director for the emergency medicine group, as well as was the representative for the emergency department on the Sepsis, Stroke and PCI Quality Assurance and Compliance Committees. She joined Buoy Health in 2019. She currently works in multiple emergency departments both in the community and academics, as well as previously worked in multiple urgent care centers. She believes this mix of experiences has given her a unique perspective on the care of acute illnesses.