People experience several illnesses during their lives where the only “cure” is to let the sickness run its course while treating the symptoms.
But appendicitis isn’t one of those. In fact, it’s an illness where taking quick action is essential for saving a person’s life.
What is appendicitis?
The appendix is a finger-shaped tube connected to the large intestine on the lower right side of the belly. While its purpose isn’t totally understood, research suggests that it may produce good bacteria for digestion.
Learn more about appendicitis.
Appendicitis typically occurs when this tube becomes blocked due to an infection or trapped stool. When this happens, the appendix becomes sore and swollen, and the only remedy is to remove it. If it’s not removed, the soreness and swelling will become more severe until the appendix bursts about 12-72 hours after the onset of symptoms. At that point, bacteria spread within the body, which can be deadly if not treated immediately.
Appendicitis affects all age groups, but it tends to impact people ages 10 to 30 the most. In children, it’s most common in those who are 5-12 years old.
While symptoms in children and adults are similar, children tend to react differently in some cases, so it’s important for parents to know what to look for. Symptoms can include one or more of the following:
- Abdominal (belly) pain
- Due to belly pain, children may avoid being touched, moving, taking deep breaths, coughing or sneezing.
- Fever and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Swollen belly in younger children (usually under 5 years old)
“Abdominal pain is the most common symptom of appendicitis,” said Manharkumar Patel, MD, a family practice physician at OSF HealthCare. “While this type of pain can have a number of causes that are less serious, you should go to the emergency department if the pain doesn’t go away after a few hours or becomes more severe. The telltale sign of appendicitis is pain that starts around the belly button and then migrates to the lower right side of the belly, or it could just start in the lower right side of the belly.
“And since children aren’t generally the best communicators, parents should look for behavioral signs, such as irritability or not wanting to move or be touched.”
Signs the appendix has already burst
If parents don’t take their child to the emergency department before the appendix bursts, more severe symptoms will appear.
“The fever will go up very high at this point,” Dr. Patel said. “The child will have trouble breathing due to the pain, so they’ll be taking faster, shorter breaths. They’ll be sweating and looking very weak, and their blood pressure will drop.
“If a parent sees these symptoms, it’s very important for them to take the child to the hospital as quickly as possible.”
Diagnosis and surgery
Appendicitis is usually diagnosed with blood and urine tests in conjunction with an ultrasound.
“A CT scan may be used for adults, but they’re not generally used on children due to the radiation,” Dr. Patel said. “So, an ultrasound is the safest method for diagnosing a child.
“Surgery to remove the appendix takes about an hour. If it has already burst, the patient is also placed on antibiotics administered through an IV, and the abdominal cavity may be washed out with a salt water solution.”
Since the appendix doesn’t perform a critical function within the body, the patient’s lifestyle returns to normal after recovering from surgery.