What Happens To Your Body When Your Appendix Bursts

It may only be 3.5 inches long, but when your appendix ruptures, it causes big trouble. That's why it's important to know the symptoms of appendicitis (the precursor to an appendix bursting) so you can get treatment as soon as possible.

The appendix is a finger-shaped tube of tissue that is an extension of the large intestine in the lower right abdomen (via WebMD). It may be called an appendix, which typically means supplementary material or an addendum, because it does seem to be an afterthought in the human body. Even though it's believed to have some immune function, it's not considered an essential organ (per Merck Manual).

Appendicitis, which is an inflammation and infection of the appendix, occurs most often in kids and teens, but it can happen to adults too, according to Healthline. Over 5% of the population in the United States develops this condition, the site revealed.

Warning signs of appendicitis

Just like the function of the appendix, the exact cause of its occasional demise is not clearly understood. However, in most cases, appendicitis is triggered by a blockage, from a small hard piece of feces or, rarely, a foreign body (such as a tongue piercing or a fruit seed), according to the Merck Manual. The blockage prevents bacteria from leaving the appendix, causing inflammation and a rapidly developing infection (via Healthline). 

Symptoms usually begin with acute pain in the lower right part of the abdomen or pain near the navel that moves down. Other common symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, swollen belly, fever up to 102 degrees, tenderness to touch over the painful part of the abdomen, and an inability to pass gas (per WebMD). However, in about half the cases, the person doesn't have typical symptoms. The pain may be more widespread, for instance, or they may have trouble urinating, or experience constipation or diarrhea. It's important to see a doctor immediately if appendicitis is suspected. If it's not treated within 36 hours of symptom onset, the risk of rupture of the appendix increases.

What happens when the appendix ruptures

Should a person ignore or withstand the symptoms of appendicitis, or not seek emergency medical care, the appendix will continue to swell due to the buildup of pressure from multiplying bacteria and pus the body creates to fight infection (per Healthline). At some point, the swelling will prevent the blood supply from reaching a part of the appendix, causing that part to die and develop a tear. High pressure from the bacteria and pus then forces the contents of the appendix out and into the abdominal cavity. Unlike the prevailing notion that the appendix suddenly bursts, it actually oozes or leaks. 

While this is unfolding, the person may feel their pain and other symptoms easing, as the pressure in the appendix is gone. But this relief is short-lived. Within hours, this release of pus and bacteria into the abdominal cavity will not only trigger severe symptoms again, but it may also cause life-threatening conditions that require immediate attention.

Potential complications to watch for

One possible complication is peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal lining and the surface of the abdominal organs (via Healthline). Symptoms may be the same as those for appendicitis, but typically the pain is more intense — unrelenting, severe, and throughout the entire abdomen, rather than focused on the lower right side. In response to the pain, heart rate and breathing may increase. Fever is usually higher than with appendicitis and the person may experience chills, weakness, and confusion. An abscess may also form in the abdominal cavity as the body attempts to contain an infection and prevent it from spreading. 

Another possible complication of a ruptured appendix is sepsis, an inflammation of the whole body that occurs when bacteria enter the bloodstream. The person may have a low temperature or fever, chills, weakness, and confusion, and experience rapid heart rate and breathing.  A ruptured appendix is serious. In the past, it often proved to be fatal. Due to improved antibiotics and surgery today, the death rate from appendix rupture is low (per the Merck Manual)

The standard treatment for a ruptured appendix is surgery to remove the organ and clean out infection from the abdominal cavity. If an abscess formed, a drain will be inserted. After surgery, a course of antibiotics will be necessary. With a quick diagnosis and proper medical care, full recovery from a ruptured appendix is likely.