What is appendicitis?

Appendicitis is an irritation, inflammation, and infection of the appendix (a narrow, hollow tube that branches off the large intestine). The appendix functions as a part of the immune system during the first few years of life. After this time period, the appendix stops functioning and other organs continue helping fight infection. Although the appendix does not seem to serve any purpose, it can become infected and, if untreated, can burst, causing more infection and even death.

Illustration of the anatomy of the digestive system, adult
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What causes appendicitis?

Appendicitis occurs when the interior of the appendix becomes filled with something that causes it to swell, such as mucus, stool, or parasites. The appendix then becomes irritated and inflamed. The blood supply to the appendix is cut off as the swelling and irritation increase. Adequate blood flow is necessary for a body part to remain healthy. When blood flow is reduced, the appendix starts to die. Rupture (or perforation) occurs as holes develop in the walls of the appendix, allowing stool, mucus, and other substances to leak through and get inside the abdomen. An infection inside the abdomen known as peritonitis occurs when the appendix perforates.

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 occur as soon as 48 to 72 hours after symptoms begin, appendicitis is considered an emergency and anyone with symptoms needs to see a doctor immediately.

What are the risk factors for appendicitis?

Appendicitis affects 1 in 1,000 people living in the U.S. 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?

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

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 doctor needs to be aware of.

The symptoms of appendicitis may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor 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:

Treatment for appendicitis

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

Because of the likelihood of the appendix rupturing and causing a severe, life-threatening infection, doctors will recommend that the appendix be removed with an operation.

Illustration of laparoscopic appendectomy
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The appendix may be removed in two ways:

Generally, without a rupture, recovery after an appendectomy is just a few days. If the appendix has ruptured, recovery is longer and antibiotics are necessary.

People can live a normal life without their appendix. Changes in diet, exercise, or other lifestyle modifications are usually not necessary.

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