Peritonitis is an infection of the peritoneum, a membrane which lines the body cavity and the organs it encloses. This condition is viewed as a medical emergency, because untreated peritonitis can kill a patient or cause severe organ damage. Typically, the condition requires surgery, along with a course of medications to address the infection and inflammation. If caught early, peritonitis can be quite survivable, especially in healthy patients, although elderly patients and patients with health problems have a lower survival rate.
The purpose of the peritoneum under normal conditions is to protect the organs from trauma and infection. When the peritoneum becomes inflamed or infected, it exposes the abdominal organs to the potential for infection, and it tends to bring processes like digestion to a halt. The patient usually experiences extreme abdominal pain and cramping, along with a high fever, vomiting, and an irregular heartbeat. Some patients experience cramping so severe that their bodies contort, causing additional pain as the peritoneum is twisted.
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Sometimes, peritonitis arises spontaneously, usually as a result of bacteria carried in the blood and lymph. More commonly, trauma or disease in the abdomen leads to peritonitis. If an organ is severely infected, the infection can spread to the peritoneum. Organ ruptures and puncture wounds which introduce bacteria to the peritoneum can also cause infection, because the membrane is covered in a serous fluid which happens to be an ideal culture for bacteria.
The symptoms of peritonitis are easy to identify, and the condition is usually diagnosed quickly in patients who are at risk for developing peritonitis. Treatment involves administration of antibiotics to fight the infection, and exploratory surgery to determine the cause. The surgery may also address the underlying cause and repair any damage related to the peritonitis. For example, if an intestinal perforation lead to the infection, the tear in the intestines will be repaired and the body cavity will be flushed out so that it is clean.
This condition is very serious, and it requires immediate treatment. Risk factors for developing peritonitis include recent surgery, trauma to the abdomen, and gastrointestinal diseases. People with any of these risk factors should be taken to a hospital immediately if they develop the symptoms of peritonitis so that they can be evaluated and treated. It is also important to seek medical treatment for trauma to the abdomen, both to repair the damage caused by the trauma, and to reduce the risk of developing peritonitis.