Appendicitis happens when your appendix is inflamed (swollen) or infected. The appendix is a 3- to 6-inch-long, pouch-like structure in the lower right side of your abdomen — usually where the large intestine connects to the small intestine. The function of the appendix is not entirely clear. It may assist the body in fighting infection, but it’s not a vital organ, meaning it is possible to live without one.
Appendicitis is a medical emergency because an inflamed appendix can rupture (burst), which is a life-threatening event. If you or someone you are with is showing signs of appendicitis, come to a Dignity Health location near you for emergency care.
The main symptom of appendicitis is belly pain. It often starts near the belly button and spreads to the lower right side. Sometimes, the whole belly area is painful. If you are pregnant, the pain may be more centralized in the upper abdomen because the appendix sits higher up during pregnancy.
The pain usually occurs suddenly, progresses rapidly, and worsens when you move, take a deep breath, or cough or sneeze. It may also be worse when walking or if the bottom of the heel is tapped. The pain site can vary depending on your body type and age, but it generally starts as mild cramping and becomes more severe over time.
Other signs and symptoms of appendicitis are:
- Loss of appetite
- Inability to pass gas
If you have symptoms of appendicitis, see your doctor immediately. A ruptured appendix can be life-threatening and requires immediate surgery. Your doctor may order a blood test to check for infection or an abdominal ultrasound or CT scan to see if the appendix is swollen.
The appendix opens into the large intestine (colon). Most cases of appendicitis result from mucus, stool, or a foreign body becoming trapped inside the appendix and blocking the opening. The obstructed appendix then becomes irritated, inflamed, or infected due to the bacteria present in that foreign object. If the appendix ruptures, contaminated contents from the appendix can leak into the abdominal cavity, resulting in a severe infection called peritonitis.
There are two types of appendicitis: chronic and acute. In chronic appendicitis, symptoms develop slowly and tend to be milder, extending over a series of weeks. Symptoms may come and go over this time frame. In acute cases of appendicitis, symptoms develop severely and suddenly. Regardless of the onset of symptoms, your appendix will need to be removed.
Appendicitis can affect anyone, though some people are more likely to develop it than others. Risk factors for appendicitis are out of your control. They include:
- Family history of appendicitis may increase your risk of developing it
- Age: Most appendicitis cases happen between the ages of 15 and 30
- Sex: Appendicitis is more common in males
There is not a definitive way to prevent appendicitis. It is possible that you could lower your risk by eating a fiber-rich diet, though more research is needed on the role of diet in appendicitis. Right now, appendicitis is less common in countries where people traditionally have diets that are high in fiber.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.