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Appendicitis

Key points

  • Appendicitis is a condition that causes your appendix to become inflamed.
  • The main symptoms associated with appendicitis are pain in your abdomen (tummy) and sickness.
  • If you have appendicitis, you will need surgery to remove your appendix. This operation is called an appendicectomy (or appendectomy).

Featured FAQ

Are all right-sided lower abdominal pains appendicitis?

Appendicitis is a common cause of acute abdominal pain. However, there are many reasons why you may have abdominal pain on your right-hand side. The pain may be caused by things such as gastroenteritis, gallstones, Crohn’s disease, peptic ulcer disease or a urinary tract infection.

See all our FAQs about appendicitis

Appendicitis is inflammation of your appendix. If you have appendicitis, you will need to have your appendix removed.

About appendicitis

Your appendix is a small closed tube attached to the first part of your large bowel. It’s usually located in the lower right-hand side of your abdomen. The appendix doesn’t have any known function in humans.

Appendicitis occurs when your appendix becomes blocked. If this happens, bacteria can grow out of control in your appendix. This increases the pressure within your appendix and leads to inflammation. If you have appendicitis, you will need surgery to remove your appendix. This operation is called an appendicectomy.

Appendicitis is most common in people aged between 10 and 19, but you can get it at any age. Men are slightly more likely to get appendicitis than women.

Appendicitis is the most common reason for emergency surgery. Six to seven in 100 people will develop appendicitis during their lifetime.

Symptoms of appendicitis

Symptoms of appendicitis include:

  • pain in your abdomen – this may start in the centre and then move to the lower right-hand side
  • a high temperature
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • constipation or diarrhoea
  • loss of appetite

If you have appendicitis while you're pregnant, your symptoms may be different from those listed above. For example, the pain in your abdomen may be higher up than it usually is for appendicitis. If you’re older, you may not have these symptoms or they might not be as obvious.

These symptoms aren't always due to appendicitis, but if you have them or if they suddenly get worse, you should seek medical advice immediately.

Complications of appendicitis

If your appendix becomes inflamed and isn't removed quickly, it can burst (perforate). This may cause you to suffer from a severe abdominal infection (peritonitis). Peritonitis can cause you to have severe abdominal pain, which gets worse when you move around, a high temperature and vomiting. It can be potentially life-threatening if it’s not treated quickly.

If your appendix becomes inflamed, it can also lead to an abscess or mass forming around your appendix. An abscess is a pus-filled area of infection below the skin. If an abscess forms around your appendix it may need to be drained. An appendix mass is normally left to settle and you will be given antibiotics. Your appendix will then be removed six to 12 weeks later once the mass has settled.

Causes of appendicitis

The exact reasons why some people develop appendicitis aren’t fully understood. However, it's thought that it may be caused by a blockage (obstruction). If this happens, bacteria can grow out of control in your appendix. This increases the pressure within your appendix and leads to inflammation. Very occasionally a tumour of the large bowel can block the appendix and cause appendicitis. Your diet may also play a part – studies have shown that appendicitis is less common in people who eat a diet high in fibre.

Diagnosis of appendicitis

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. If he or she thinks you may have appendicitis you will need to go to hospital for further tests.

There is no single test used to diagnose appendicitis. However, to help make a diagnosis, your doctor may do some tests including:

  • urine tests
  • blood tests
  • an ultrasound scan
  • a CT scan
  • for women, a pregnancy test, to check that your symptoms aren’t being caused because you’re pregnant

If your doctor thinks you have appendicitis, you will normally be advised to have your appendix removed straight away to prevent it from bursting.

Treatment of appendicitis

If the doctors at the hospital think your symptoms may be due to appendicitis, you will need to have an operation called an appendicectomy to remove your appendix. It's possible that once your appendix has been removed, you will find out that the cause of your symptoms wasn't appendicitis after all. However, because of the risks of complications if treatment for appendicitis is delayed, the benefits of having the surgery outweigh the risks or inconvenience. 

The operation is done under general anaesthesia, which means you will be asleep during the operation. It’s usually done using keyhole surgery (laparoscopy), but can also be done as open surgery. Sometimes, if the keyhole surgery is started and it looks like it may be technically difficult; it may be converted to open surgery.

 

Reviewed by Kuljeet Battoo, Bupa Health Information Team, June 2013.

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For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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