What is Acute Peritonitis?

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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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Acute peritonitis is the sudden inflammation of the peritoneum membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and protects the abdominal organs. Considered a potentially life-threatening condition, this form of peritonitis generally occurs in the presence of severe bacterial infection. Treatment for acute peritonitis is usually dependent on the severity and presentation of infection and generally involves the administration of antibiotic medication. If symptoms are ignored, infection can spread, leading to a worsening of symptoms and, ultimately, life-threatening complications.

Commonly referred to as spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (SBP), acute peritonitis generally occurs as a complication of ascites, or fluid accumulation within the abdominal cavity, due to liver failure. The presence of various chronic diseases that affect liver function, including cirrhosis, hepatitis, and certain cancers, may contribute to the development of ascites. Excess fluid that accumulates with nowhere to go eventually becomes invasive to the peritoneum and abdominal organs. The prolonged presence of ascites becomes a prime breeding ground for bacteria, contributing to the development of bacterial infection, which can result in the acute development of peritonitis.


A diagnosis of peritonitis may be made with the administration of a variety of diagnostic tests administered to evaluate liver function. In most cases, abdominal distention may be detected with a physical and palpatory examination of the affected area. A battery of blood and imaging tests may be ordered to assess the individual’s white blood cell count, evaluate the condition and functionality of the digestive tract, and identify any organ perforation or intestinal obstruction. A peritoneal fluid culture may also be conducted to confirm and identify the responsible, bacterial presence.

Peritonitis will often present with abdominal tenderness, distention, and nausea. Some individuals may develop decreased urine output or notice they are unable to have a bowel movement. It is not uncommon for certain individuals to experience widespread joint pain, as is commonly associated with the flu. Additional signs of acute peritonitis may include excessive thirst, pronounced fatigue, and fever.

Generally, an antibiotic medication is prescribed to be taken in its entirety to eliminate all traces of infection and prevent it from spreading or recurring. Individuals with severe peritonitis may require hospitalization to stabilize their condition and treat any underlying, contributory illness. Rarely, surgery may be necessary to remove any abscess formation that may occur as a complication of extensive infection. If left untreated, peritonitis may contribute to the development of hepatic encephalopathy and sepsis, which are both life-threatening conditions that may lead to widespread organ failure and premature expiration.


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