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What is appendicitis?

Appendicitis is an inflammation of the appendix - that is, the appendix gets red, swollen and irritated. The appendix is a small finger-like tube that grows out of the large bowel.

Appendicitis symptoms

The main symptom of appendicitis is stomach pain.

Appendicitis pain usually starts in the middle of your child's stomach near his belly button. It might feel like a dull cramp. Over the next few hours, the pain becomes sharper. Sometimes the pain can shift from being all over the stomach to the lower right side of the stomach, over the appendix.

Your child might be more uncomfortable when she's trying to sit upright or walk straight. The pain will often get worse when she moves.

Your child might also have fever, vomiting, loose poo and no appetite.

School-age children and teenagers are more likely to get appendicitis than preschool children and babies. The symptoms of appendicitis aren't as clear in young children as in teenagers or adults. You might not even know that a young child has tummy pain.

Does your child need to see a doctor about appendicitis pain?

Yes. If your child has tummy pain that's getting worse, take your child to the GP or hospital emergency department.

If your child is extremely unwell and even a small amount of movement causes him pain, take him to a hospital emergency department straight away. You might need to call an ambulance in this situation - phone 000.

There's always a risk of the inflamed appendix bursting and releasing pus into the abdomen. This is called a ruptured appendix. This isn't very common, but without treatment it can be life-threatening.

Tests for appendicitis

Appendicitis can be difficult to diagnose.

Your GP or the emergency department doctor might get your child to do a urine test. This will rule out a urinary tract infection, which can look a lot like appendicitis.

Your child might also have a blood test to see whether there's evidence of infection or inflammation somewhere in her body.

The doctor might also order an abdominal ultrasound. But this test might not always be helpful.

Treatment for appendicitis

Surgery to remove the inflamed appendix is the only treatment for appendicitis.

There are two kinds of surgery to take out an appendix:

  • Keyhole surgery (laparoscopy) is where a camera and special instruments are inserted through three small cuts in different parts of your child's abdomen.
  • Open surgery is where a single, larger cut is made in your child's abdomen.

As the appendix doesn't seem to have a function in food digestion, your child won't have any problems if it's taken out.

Causes of appendicitis

We don't know what causes appendicitis. One theory is that if food or poo gets stuck in the appendix, it can cause a blockage, which can then get infected with bacteria.

We also don't really know why we have an appendix or what it's supposed to do in our bodies. It might just be a body part left over from human evolution.