If you have stomach pain or nausea, it can be tough to figure out what’s going on. Maybe you picked up a germ at that potluck dinner, or simply ate something that was spicier than you’re accustomed to. It can be even more challenging to get to the bottom of stomach problems in children, since they can’t always find the right words to explain how they’re feeling.
Sometimes, that abdominal pain and nausea can be a sign of appendicitis. Appendicitis is an infection of—you guessed it—your appendix. The appendix is a small pouch, about the size of a finger, that’s attached to your large intestine. With appendicitis, something blocks the connection between the appendix and the large intestine. It could be enlarged tissue, fecal debris or, rarely, a tumor that’s causing the blockage. Without being able to flow freely to the large intestine, bacteria inside the appendix multiply and cause the infection.
Appendicitis is common. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 5 to 9% of people will develop the condition at some point. Even though it’s well-known, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about it. Edward Charles, MD, a general surgeon at Banner Health Center plus in Glendale, Arizona, helped dispel some of those myths.
Myth: You can outgrow your risk of developing appendicitis.
Fact: Anyone at any age can develop a case of appendicitis, but it’s most common in people 10 to 30 years of age. Males are more likely to develop it than females.
Myth: If you have appendicitis, you’ll have pain in the right lower part of your abdomen.
Fact: Early symptoms of appendicitis are vague. You might notice nausea and pain or pressure in the center of your stomach. “Appendicitis can feel more like a bad stomachache in the first 12 to 24 hours, Dr. Charles said.
Within 24 hours you’re more likely to notice pain in the right lower quadrant of your abdomen. As the infection progresses, you’ll probably develop fever and body aches as well.
Myth: If you have appendicitis, you’ll know it.
Fact: “Many things can be confused with appendicitis due to the limited way our body can let us know there is something wrong,” Dr. Charles said. Common symptoms of appendicitis are also frequently seen with the following conditions:
- Ovarian cysts
- Crohn’s disease
- Stomach flu
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs), bladder or kidney infections or kidney stones
Your doctor will probably perform a physical exam and test your blood to figure out what’s causing your pain. Your abdominal muscles might be rigid or “guarding,” and your blood might show an elevated white blood cell count, which is a sign of infection. If your doctor suspects appendicitis, imaging tests (a CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis or an MRI scan in people who are pregnant) can confirm the diagnosis.
Myth: You can treat appendicitis with antibiotics.
Fact: Despite what you might read online, surgery to remove the appendix is the standard of care in the U.S. “Treating appendicitis with antibiotics alone has not been proven effective enough to recommend it,” Dr. Charles said. “Surgery is safe, controlled and minimally invasive.”
There’s one exception—if a CT scan shows a perforation or abscess, it might be possible to treat the appendicitis by draining it with a needle and taking antibiotics. But some people still need an appendectomy weeks or months later.
In rare cases, a cancerous tumor blocks the appendix and causes appendicitis. So, after surgery, your appendix should be tested for signs of cancer. If you have cancer, you may need further treatment.
Myth: Appendicitis isn’t serious.
Fact: It’s true that most of the time you’ll recover from appendicitis without complications. But the later the infection is diagnosed, the higher your risk for problems. If your body doesn’t detect the infection right away it could spread to the lining of your abdomen and lead to sepsis and organ failure.
Myth: Your appendix doesn’t perform any functions.
Fact: The tissues inside your appendix produce antibodies that can fight against invading bacteria. But your appendix is only a tiny part of your gastrointestinal tract, and other parts perform the same function. “The role of your appendix is negligible overall,” Dr. Charles said.
Myth: Following a healthy diet and getting enough exercise can reduce your risk of appendicitis.
Fact: We don’t know how to prevent appendicitis, but there’s no evidence to suggest that lifestyle changes influence your risk.
The bottom line
Appendicitis is a common condition that develops when your appendix becomes infected. If you or your child has pain that feels like a bad stomachache, contact your doctor or seek emergency care. To connect with a health care professional who can evaluate symptoms of appendicitis, reach out to Banner Health.