Inflammation of the peritoneum (the membrane lining of the abdominal wall and covering the abdominal organs). Peritonitis is a very severe condition.
The inflammation is nearly always due to irritation and bacterial infection brought on by another abdominal disorder. The most widespread cause is perforation of the intestine wall or stomach, which allows bacteria and digestive juices to move into the abdominal cavity. Perforation is often the result of appendicitis (acute inflammation of the appendix), a peptic ulcer, or diverticulitis (inflammation of the abnormal pouches in the wall of the intestine).
Peritonitis can also be linked with acute cholecystitis (inflammation of the gall bladder), acute salpingitis (inflammation of a fallopian tube), or septicaemia.
There is generally extreme abdominal pain over all or part of the abdomen. After a number of hours, the abdomen feels hard, and peristalsis (wave like constructions of the intestinal muscles) ceases. Other symptoms include nausea, bloating, fever and vomiting. Shock and dehydration may occur.
Diagnosis is made from a physical examination. The afflicted person will need to be taken to hospital without delay. Surgery can be vital to deal with the cause. If the cause is not known, a laparoscopy or an exploratory laparotomy can be carried out. Antibiotic drugs are usually given to kill bacteria, and intravenous infusions of fluid can be given to deal with the dehydration.
In many cases, a full recovery is made. Less commonly however intestinal obstruction caused by adhesions (bands of scar tissue between loops of intestine), can arise at a later stage.