Family Life

Knowing the difference between appendicitis and a stomach bug

My 10-year-old recently had a bout of the stomach flu. He showed the typical symptoms — vomiting, nausea, aches, and pains. Thankfully, the virus passed, and he was quickly on the mend, but for a while, I was worried that he had appendicitis. How are the symptoms of appendicitis different from a stomach virus — and how can I tell which is which?

A stomach bug and appendicitis make themselves known in frustratingly similar ways: fever, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. However, appendicitis is usually also accompanied by a distinct pain or tenderness around the belly button or just off to its right; when pressure is applied to the area, the pain may intensify upon release. Sometimes, the pain is so severe the child bends inwards, folding towards his center.

The appendix, a small pouch-like organ the size of a finger, is located at the beginning of the large intestine, towards the lower right abdomen. When the appendix becomes inflamed, this is called appendicitis. The inflammation is the result of the appendix becoming blocked, and the subsequent buildup of bacteria irritates the organ’s lining. If left untreated, the appendix may burst, spreading the bacteria to the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity, as well as elsewhere in the body.

The next time your son exhibits worrying symptoms, contact your pediatrician. Although the symptoms of appendicitis mirror other abdominal problems, a doctor can usually diagnose it either through touch or by ultrasound. An abdominal ultrasound test uses sound waves to produce images of the appendix. A blood or urine test might also be required to determine the body’s white blood-cell count and severity of the infection.

If appendicitis is diagnosed, an immediate appendectomy (removal of the appendix) is recommended. The appendectomy will most likely occur laparoscopically, where long, narrow tubes are inserted into the abdominal cavity via small incisions. Using these tubes, the surgeon inserts a small camera and surgical instruments into the cavity, allowing the doctor to remove the inflamed organ with minimal trauma to the body. Should the appendix have ruptured, IV antibiotics may be administered for a period of time before the surgery can occur.

There is no way to prevent appendicitis, but being aware of its specific symptoms can help your child get the attention he needs as quickly as possible.

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