What is Peritonitis?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Severe cramping can be a sign of peritonitis.
Severe cramping can be a sign of peritonitis.

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.

The peritoneum serves as a tract for lymphatic vessels.
The peritoneum serves as a tract for lymphatic vessels.

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.

An abdominal surgical procedure could result in peritonitis, a dangerous condition.
An abdominal surgical procedure could result in peritonitis, a dangerous condition.

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.

Peritonitis may require emergency exploratory surgery to determine the cause.
Peritonitis may require emergency exploratory surgery to determine the cause.

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.

Symptoms of peritonitis may include high fever.
Symptoms of peritonitis may include high fever.
A ruptured appendix may lead to peritonitis.
A ruptured appendix may lead to peritonitis.
Peritonitis may be treated using antibiotics.
Peritonitis may be treated using antibiotics.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


My sister is still in acute care after six months, after suffering at the hands of a useless doctor who pierced her bowel during a routine endoscopy procedure. God knows if she's ever going to get over this physically or mentally.


My mother just passed away on April 17 due to a hole in her lower intestine. She was 76 years old and we were told she was in serious condition and has a 30-40 percent chance of surviving. She did not make it.

This is very serious. The doctors told us had she been a lot younger she might have had a better chance at fighting off the disease. It destroyed her kidneys and she passed peacefully.


My stepdad has this. He's been on life support for 18 days.


I got peritonitis following the removal of my large bowel following a cancer diagnosis. I spent 20 days in ICU, 11 of those on a ventilator. I was very lucky to recover. After another two weeks in the hospital, I went home to face a six-month recovery period carrying a vac machine to heal a very deep abdominal wound. I would not wish this on any human being.


My 50 year old nephew had his colon ruptured during a routine colonoscopy. He is now fighting for his life. Please pray.


I had this two weeks ago. My bowel had separated three months post op from gastric bypass surgery. I had a kink in my intestine and the inflammation caused it to separate. Luckily I was in the hospital while this happened. I only spent 48 hours in ICU and went home five days after emergency surgery. I know I am lucky, but people can survive.


my sister is lying in a hospital bed now because a doctor pierced her bowel during a minor surgery. i hope he can live with what he has done to her, because she may not live one more day. the infection is tremendous. one hospital gave up on her and sent her to another. only god can help her now.


I was doing peritoneal kidney dialysis, which uses your peritoneum to filter wastes like your kidney does. Look it up if you want more info.

Basically, it puts you at a greater risk of developing peritonitis. Of course, as Murphy's Law would have it, I got it. I fell into a coma for a couple of days and was put in an induced coma because the pain would be too great.

The doctors had to do about six surgeries and loads of antibiotics. Now, I have a big dent in my stomach from all of the surgeries that were performed. It was amazing, though. My stomach was exposed and I actually see it if I looked down. I'm very blessed to be alive today.


My wife is in the hospital and has been there over two weeks. She has been in icu now for nine days and is fighting for her life. She is 51 and had gastric bypass surgery and has been sick for a while.

She was bent over in pain and I took her to the emergency room. Her prognosis (if she pulls through) is another two to three weeks in icu and most likely a couple months in a nursing home. She should have gone to the hospital long before we went. This is nothing to mess with. It spread into her lungs as well.


My mom is in the hospital right now fighting this. They have her on all kinds of antibiotics that are not working. She has been fighting this infection for two weeks. They ripped her intestines during surgery for colon cancer. My mom is in a lot of pain.


this killed my fit father. it is very real.


This happened to me. The doctor pricked my bowel. I developed peritonitis. It was awful. I am lucky to be alive! Hope the doctor does not make this mistake again with someone else.


i had peritonitis and did not know what it was until i looked it up on the internet. it nearly killed me, so now iv'e looked it up. i hope it doesn't come back again. now i know what it can do

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