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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 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 is 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 and 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 that 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 that 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 poor, usually resulting in 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.



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, 1997.


Ascites An accumulation of fluid within the abdominal cavity.

Cirrhosis A progressive liver disease in which the liver grows increasingly more scarred. The presence of scar tissue then interferes with liver function.

Diverticulum An outpouching of the intestine.

Laparotomy An open operation on the abdomen.

Pancreatitis An inflammation of the pancreas.

Perforation A hole.

Peritoneum The membrane that lines the inside of the abdominal cavity, and all of the internal organs.

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What Is Peritonitis?

What Happens When People Get Peritonitis?


Peritonitis (per-i-to-NY-tis) is an inflammation* of the lining of the abdominal (ab-DOM-i-nal) cavity. The slippery lining has two layers and is called the peritoneum (per-i-to-NEE-um).

* inflammation
(in-fla-MAY-shun) is the bodys response to infection or irritation.


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What Is Peritonitis?

A number of conditions can cause peritonitis. Usually, peritonitis occurs when an infection develops in the peritoneum from a perforation (per-fo-RAY-shun), or hole, in the stomach, intestines, appendix, or one of the other organs covered by the lining. The perforation can come from a knife or gunshot wound or from a cut during surgery. People also can get peritonitis from complications of other illnesses, such as a ruptured appendix, diverticulitis (dy-ver-tik-yoo-LY-tis), a perforated ulcer, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). In all of these cases, bacteria* can infect the peritoneum. People with cirrhosis (si-RO-sis) of the liver* sometimes get spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, which means they have no rupture or obvious source for the infection.

* bacteria
(bak-TEER-ee-a) are round, spiral, or rod-shaped single-celled microorganisms without a distinct nucleus that commonly multiply by cell division. Some types may cause disease in humans, animals, or plants.
* liver
is a large organ located in the upper abdomen (AB-do-man) that has many functions, including storage and filtration of blood, secretion of bile, and participation in various metabolic (met-a-BOLL-ik) processes.

What Happens When People Get Peritonitis?

Symptoms The symptoms of peritonitis range from mild to severe pain in the stomach area. Peritonitis often causes a muscle spasm in the abdominal wall, making the abdomen* feel hard and immobile, as if it were a wooden board. A person with peritonitis usually has a fever and may feel bloated. Vomiting and diarrhea* are common.

* abdomen
(AB-do-men), commonly called the belly, is the portion of the body between the chest or thorax (THOR-aks) and the pelvis.
* diarrhea
(dy-a-REE-a) is abnormally frequent and liquid stool discharges.

Diagnosis A doctor often can diagnose peritonitis through a physical examination of the patient. The diagnosis can be confirmed using abdominal x-rays or CT scans*. Occasionally, surgery is necessary to be certain that peritonitis is present.

* CT scans
or CAT scans are the shortened name for computerized axial tomography (to-MOG-ra-fee), which uses computers to view structures inside the body.

Treatment The treatment of peritonitis usually includes surgery and antibiotics*. Surgery is performed to repair any ruptured organs that caused the infection as well as to drain the infectious fluids from the abdominal cavity. Antibiotics are used to treat the bacterial infection. Most people who get peritonitis recover fully after treatment.

* antibiotics
(an-ty-by-OT-iks) are drugs that kill bacteria.

See also


Bacterial Infections

Cirrhosis of the Liver



Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)


Slap, Gail B., and Martha M. Jablow. Teenage Health Care: The First Comprehensive Family Guide for the Preteen to Young Adult Years. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.

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peritonitis (pe-ri-tŏn-I-tis) n. inflammation of the peritoneum. primary p. peritonitis caused by bacteria spread via the bloodstream. Symptoms are diffuse abdominal pain and swelling, with fever and weight loss. secondary p. peritonitis due to perforation or rupture of an abdominal organ, such as the vermiform appendix, allowing access of bacteria and irritant digestive juices to the peritoneum. This produces sudden severe abdominal pain and shock. Treatment is usually by surgical repair of the perforation.

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per·i·to·ni·tis / ˌperitnˈītis/ • n. Med. inflammation of the peritoneum, typically caused by bacterial infection either via the blood or after rupture of an abdominal organ.

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peritonitis Inflammation of the peritoneum. It may be caused by bacterial infection or chemical irritation or it may arise spontaneously in certain diseases. Symptoms include fever, abdominal pain and distension and shock. Treatment is directed at the underlying cause.