Chances are, someone you love has suffered from appendicitis during childhood or adolescence.
Although it’s rarely talked about, appendicitis affects hundreds of thousands of people in the United States each year. In fact, more than 250,000 appendectomies (surgery involving removal of the appendix) are performed in America yearly (1).
So what does appendicitis feel like? What are the signs of appendicitis? Read on to find out!
What Is the Appendix?
The appendix is actually part of your digestive tract, sitting at the junction of the small intestine and large intestine. Hence, it’s located on the lower right side of your abdomen. It’s roughly four inches long and is quite thin (2). In some people, the appendix lies behind the colon.
Despite the fact that everyone has one, doctors aren’t quite sure what the appendix actually does. Many believe it’s the remnants of the digestive tracts of our ancestors, who had a very different diet than we have now. Others believe it contains vital bacteria that help digestion and boost immune function (3).
Even though we know little about it, the appendix is a vestigial organ, meaning that you can live perfectly happy and healthy without it.
What Causes Appendicitis
According to Medical News Today, appendicitis is a condition in which the appendix becomes swollen, inflamed, and filled with pus. It typically occurs either when an infection in your digestive system finds its way into your appendix, or due to an obstruction of food within your appendix (3). Other causes of appendicitis include parasitic infection, bacterial imbalance in the gut, severe constipation, and injury to the digestive tract.
It can also be caused by an upper respiratory tract infection, which can lead to a swollen lymph node within the wall of the bowel (4).
Left untreated, appendicitis can cause your appendix to burst in as little as 48 hours after initial infection, spilling infected pus into your abdomen. An abscess occurs when the infection inside your appendix mixes with intestinal contents. Left untreated, it can lead to peritonitis.
Peritonitis, as you may know, is a deadly infection of the peritoneum, which is the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and covers most of your digestive organs. Peritonitis quickly spreads throughout the body and can cause irreversible damage or even death.
How to Know it’s Appendicitis
Appendicitis should be treated very seriously and warrants an emergency trip to the doctor’s office.
To diagnose the condition, your doctor may ask for:
- A blood test, to look for infection
- A urine test, to detect infection of the kidneys or bladder, as well as appendicitis-related proteins.
- MRI, CT, or ultrasound scan to create a 3-d model of your appendix and look for inflammation.
Appendicitis treatment consists of antibiotics as well as the surgical removal of your appendix. If the appendix does rupture, the remnants will be removed and the pus is vacuumed out of the abdominal cavity. The doctor will also likely leave a drainage tube in the abdomen for a few days after appendicitis surgery to remove any fluid (5).
Appendicitis can happen at any time, but it most often occurs between the ages of 10 and 30. It’s also more common in men than in women.
9 Signs of Appendicitis
Even though appendicitis is incredibly common, the condition isn’t straightforward to diagnose.
In fact, appendicitis can easily be confused with something else, such as (6):
- severe irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- bladder or urine infections
- Crohn’s disease
- pelvic infection
It’s also notoriously hard to diagnose in children and pregnant women because the signs of appendicitis can mimic other conditions, like childhood infection and pregnancy symptoms.
Here are a few of the more straightforward symptoms.
1. Progressively Worsening Pain
Infection and inflammation rarely occur without the presence of pain, so it’s only natural that abdominal pain is the first signs of appendicitis on this list.
Appendicitis pain may start in the middle of your abdomen, near your belly button.
Appendicitis typically involves a gradual onset of dull, cramping, or aching pain throughout the abdomen. As inflammation sets in, your appendix will start to irritate the lining of the abdominal wall (peritoneum).
As the infection develops, you might even feel a sharp pain in the lower right side of your abdomen.
If you are born with an appendix that lies behind the colon, appendicitis will likely cause lower back pain or pelvic pain.
2. Pain from Coughing
The abdominal pain mentioned above should increase when moving, taking deep breaths, coughing, or sneezing. It’s one of the most obvious early signs of appendicitis.
Vomiting often occurs when there’s an obstruction in your digestive tract. It’s also a common symptom of infection since your body is trying to get rid of the pus accumulating in your appendix.
Constipation is a common symptom of appendicitis, but it’s important not to look to laxatives or enemas to relieve it. That’s because these treatments can cause a burst appendix, which will quickly worsen your condition.
Diarrhea, like vomiting, is your body’s way to get rid of whatever it is that’s irritating your digestive tract. Make sure to stay hydrated throughout your diarrhea and monitor your stool. If you have any blood or dark -colored matter in your stool, call your doctor immediately.
6. Lack of Appetite
With all 3 previous symptoms mentioned above, it’s no surprise that your digestive tract doesn’t want any contents for a little while. Combined with abdominal pain, you might feel like every bite only worsens your condition. This is a clear sign that you should get to the clinic as soon as possible.
Appendicitis usually causes a fever between 99°F (37.2°C) and 100.5°F (38°C). This fever is normally also accompanied by chills. If your appendix bursts, your fever will rise to 101°F (38.3°) or above. It will also be accompanied by a higher heart rate.
8. Inability to Pass Gas
Constipation won’t just affect your ability to pass stool, but to pass gas too! During this time, you may also experience gas pains.
9. Not Feeling “Right”
Feeling like something is “off” is one of the most common complaints among people suffering from appendicitis or a burst appendix. Don’t ignore your gut feeling if you suspect your appendix might not be quite right.
Managing your Condition
If you experience one or more of the signs of appendicitis above, go to the clinic as soon as possible and get a proper examination. In the early stages of infection, you doctor might simply send you home with antibiotics.
Here’s what the Cleveland Clinic recommends (7):
If you are sent home:
- Do not use pain medication. This medication makes it difficult to monitor your pain and feel whether or not you’re getting better.
- Do not use enemas or laxatives as they increase the risk of a ruptured appendix.
- Take your temperature every 2 hours and keep a record. Bring it with you when you return to see the doctor. High temperature is a great indication of infection, so it’s important to keep it in check.
- Do not take antibiotics, unless prescribed by your doctor.
- Contact your doctor if you notice any change in your condition over the next 6-12 hours. The first 48 hours after infection are critical to prevent an appendix rupture.
- If you are returning for another exam, do not eat or drink anything on the day of the exam.
Call your physician immediately if:
- You have uncontrolled vomiting
- You have increased pain in your abdomen
- There is blood in your vomit or urine
- You are dizzy or faint
- Your pain becomes unbearable
As mentioned above, appendicitis is no joke, and neither are any of the signs of appendicitis on this list. Be vigilant and listen to your body, especially if you experience any pain or see any blood in your stool or vomit. Your appendix may not be necessary to your survival, but it can do a whole lot of damage if you ignore it!