Peritonitis is an inflammation of the membrane which lines the inside of the abdomen and all of the internal organs. This membrane is called the peritoneum.
Peritonitis may be primary (meaning that it occurs spontaneously, and not as the result of some other medical problem) or secondary (meaning that it results from some other condition). It is most often due to infection by bacteria, but may also be due to some kind of a chemical irritant (such as spillage of acid from the stomach, bile from the gall bladder and biliary tract, or enzymes from the pancreas during the illness called pancreatitis). Peritonitis has even been seen in patients who develop a reaction to the cornstarch which is used to powder gloves worn during surgery. Peritonitis with no evidence of bacteria, chemical irritant, or foreign body has occurred in such diseases as systemic lupus erythematosus, porphyria, and familial Mediterranean fever. When the peritoneum gets contaminated by blood, the blood can both irritate the peritoneum and serve as a source of bacteria to cause an infection. Blood may leak into the abdomen due to a burst tubal pregnancy, an injury, or bleeding after surgery.
Causes & symptoms
Primary peritonitis usually occurs in people who have an accumulation of fluid in their abdomens (ascites). Ascites is a common complication of severe cirrhosis of the liver (a disease in which the liver grows increasingly scarred and dysfunctional). The fluid which accumulates creates a good environment for the growth of bacteria.
Secondary peritonitis most commonly occurs when some other medical condition causes bacteria to spill into the abdominal cavity. Bacteria are normal residents of a healthy intestine, but they should have no way to escape and enter the abdomen, where they could cause an infection. Bacteria can infect the peritoneum due to conditions in which a hole (perforation) develops in the stomach (due to an ulcer eating its way through the stomach wall) or intestine (due to a large number of causes, including a ruptured appendix or a ruptured diverticulum). Bacteria can infect the peritoneum due to a severe case of pelvic inflammatory disease (a massive infection of the female organs, including the uterus and fallopian tubes). Bacteria can also escape into the abdominal cavity due to an injury which causes the intestine to burst, or an injury to an internal organ which bleeds into the abdominal cavity.
Symptoms of peritonitis include fever and abdominal pain. An acutely ill patient usually tries to lie very still, because any amount of movement causes excruciating pain. Often, the patient lies with the knees bent, to decrease strain on the tender peritoneum. There is often nausea and vomiting. The usual sounds made by the active intestine and heard during examination with a stethoscope will be absent, because the intestine usually stops functioning. The abdomen may be rigid and boardlike. Accumulations of fluid will be notable in primary peritonitis due to ascites. Other signs and symptoms of the underlying cause of secondary peritonitis may be present.
A diagnosis of peritonitis is usually based on symptoms. Discovering the underlying reason for the peritonitis, however, may require some work. A blood sample will be drawn in order to determine the white blood cell count. Because white blood cells are produced by the body in an effort to combat foreign invaders, the white blood cell count will be elevated in the case of an infection. A long, thin needle can be used to take a sample of fluid from the abdomen in an effort to diagnose primary peritonitis. The types of immune cells present are usually characteristic in this form of peritonitis. X-ray films may be taken if there is some suspicion that a perforation exists. In the case of a perforation, air will have escaped into the abdomen and will be visible on the picture. When a cause for peritonitis cannot be found, an open exploratory operation on the abdomen (laparotomy) is considered to be a crucial diagnostic procedure, and at the same time provides the opportunity to begin treatment.
Treatment depends on the source of the peritonitis, but an emergency laparotomy is usually performed. Any perforated or damaged organ is usually repaired at this time. If a clear diagnosis of pelvic inflammatory disease or pancreatitis can be made, however, surgery is not usually performed. Peritonitis from any cause is treated with antibiotics given through a needle in the vein, along with fluids to prevent dehydration.
Prognosis for untreated peritonitis is likely to be death. With treatment, the prognosis is variable, dependent on the underlying cause.
There is no way to prevent peritonitis, since the diseases it accompanies are usually not under the voluntary control of an individual. However, prompt treatment can prevent complications.
- An accumulation of fluid within the abdominal cavity.
- A progressive liver disease in which the liver grows increasingly more scarred. The presence of scar tissue then interferes with liver function.
- An outpouching of the intestine.
- An open operation on the abdomen.
- An inflammation of the pancreas.
- A hole.
- The membrane which lines the inside of the abdominal cavity, and all of the internal organs.
For Your Information
- Isselbacher, Kurt J. and Alan Epstein. "Diverticular, Vascular, and Other Disorders of the Intestine and Peritoneum." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, edited by Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
- Podolsky, Daniel K., and Kurt J. Isselbacher. "Major Complications of Cirrhosis." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, edited by Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
- Zaleznik, Dori F. and Dennis L. Kasper. "Intraabdominal Infections and Abscesses." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, edited by Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
- "Evaluation and Management of Secondary Peritonitis." American Family Physician 54 (October 1996): 1724+.
- "Subacute Bacterial Peritonitis: Diagnosis and Treatment." American Family Physician 52 (August 1995): 645.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.