Of all your body’s many functions, modern medicine is still confused about one thing: the appendix. It’s possible your appendix fights off some infections, but doctors aren’t quite sure.
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We all can survive without the 2-to-4-inch, worm-shaped organ. But if it happens to get infected or bursts — causing appendicitis — you’re in trouble. You’ll need medical attention right away, says general surgeon William O’Brien, MD.
“Appendicitis is a serious condition,” he says. “And, it’s always an emergency.”
How do you know if you’re at risk?
Dr. O’Brien says, everyone has a low risk — roughly 7% — for developing appendicitis during their life. However, it’s most common among children, ages 10 to 19. In fact, it’s the most frequent reason for emergency surgery in kids.
Appendicitis isn’t hereditary, and you can’t pass it to others. But there’s nothing you or your doctor can do to prevent it or reduce your risk of getting it, he says.
Why would your appendix get infected?
The appendix gets infected when there’s a blockage, Dr. O’Brien explains.
Blockages can be caused by:
- Hardened fecal matter.
- Enlarged tissues.
- Abdominal rips or tearing.
Left untreated, an infection can cause your appendix to burst. This can spread the infection and may cause inflammation in the lining of the abdomen.
What symptoms should you watch for?
Fortunately, appendicitis symptoms show up quickly — usually within the first 24 hours. Signs can appear anywhere from 4 to 48 hours after a problem occurs.
Go to the emergency room or call your doctor right away if you notice new or worsening pain in the lower right part of your abdomen (upper right side for pregnant women).
It’s especially important to see a doctor if you also experience:
- Loss of appetite with nausea or vomiting.
- Lack of energy.
- Inability to pass gas.
Appendicitis has similar symptoms with some other conditions. So, it’s important to have a doctor determine what’s wrong, Dr. O’Brien says.
Symptoms can mimic:
- Crohn’s disease.
- Ulcerative colitis.
- Gallbladder problems.
- Urinary tract infections.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Stomach problems.
- Intestinal blockages.
How do doctors diagnose appendicitis?
There’s no blood test to identify appendicitis. A blood sample can show an increase in your white blood cell count, which points to an infection.
Your doctor also may order an abdominal or pelvic CT scan or X-rays. Doctors typically use ultrasound to diagnose appendicitis in children.
What are your treatment options?
Doctors can treat appendicitis in two ways.
In less severe cases, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. However, most appendicitis cases require surgery (an appendectomy) to remove the appendix.
If your appendix hasn’t burst, your doctor may remove it through a small cut in the belly button, a laparoscopy. This procedure works well for people of all ages. Recovery typically takes between two and four weeks.
A ruptured appendix will often require a longer recovery time. The surgeon will clean out any infection that’s spread in the abdomen and this can often be performed through a camera inserted through a small cut in the belly button as well.
The bottom line? Don’t hesitate to seek medical care if you notice potential signs of appendicitis, Dr. O’Brien says.
“Treatment has the best results if appendicitis is found early,” he says.