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What is appendicitis?

Appendicitis is an inflammation of the appendix, a finger-like portion of the large intestine that generally hangs down from the lower right side of the abdomen. Although the appendix does not seem to serve any purpose, it can become diseased and, if untreated, can burst, causing infection and even death.

Appendicitis may occur after a viral infection in the digestive tract or when the tube connecting the large intestine and appendix is blocked or trapped by stool. Because of the risk of rupture, which may happen as soon as 48 to 72 hours after symptoms begin, appendicitis is considered an emergency and anyone with symptoms needs to see a physician immediately.

Illustration of the anatomy of the digestive system, adult
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What are the risk factors for appendicitis?

Appendicitis affects 7 percent to 8 percent of the US population and is the most common reason for a child to need emergency abdominal surgery.

Most cases of appendicitis occur between the ages of 10 and 30 years. Having a family history of appendicitis may increase a child's risk for the illness, especially in males, and having cystic fibrosis also seems to put a child at higher risk.

What are the symptoms of appendicitis?

Pain in the right side of the abdomen is the most common symptom of appendicitis. This usually begins near the navel and moves down and to the right side of the body. The pain becomes worse when moving, taking deep breaths, coughing, sneezing, and being touched in the area.

The following are other common symptoms of appendicitis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • inability to pass gas
  • fever that begins after other symptoms
  • abdominal swelling
  • urinary tract symptoms
  • respiratory symptoms

It is important that persons with symptoms of appendicitis not take laxatives or enemas to relieve constipation, as these medications and procedures can cause the appendix to burst. In addition, persons should also avoid taking pain medication, as this can mask other symptoms the physician needs to be aware of.

The symptoms of appendicitis may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is appendicitis diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for appendicitis may include the following:

  • blood tests (to check for signs of infection such as elevated white blood cell count)
  • urine tests (to rule out a urinary tract infection)
  • imaging procedures (to determine if the appendix is inflamed), including the following:
    • computed tomography scan (Also called a CT or CAT scan.) - a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general x-rays.
    • ultrasound - a diagnostic technique which uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the internal organs.
    • x-ray - a diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
Illustration of laparoscopic appendectomy
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Treatment for appendicitis:

Specific treatment for appendicitis will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the condition
  • your tolerance of specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • surgical removal of the appendix (appendectomy)
    People can live a normal life without their appendix and specific changes in diet, exercise, or other lifestyle factors may not be necessary.
  • medication

Click here to view the
Online Resources of Non-Traumatic Emergencies

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