Peritonitis is an inflammation of the membrane which lines the inside of theabdomen and all of the internal organs. This membrane is called the peritoneum. Peritonitis may be primary (meaning that it occurs spontaneously, and notas 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 spillageof acid from the stomach, bile from the gall bladder and biliary tract, or enzymes from the pancreas during the illness called pancreatitis). Peritonitishas even been seen in patients who develop a reaction to the cornstarch which is used to powder gloves worn during surgery. Peritonitis with no evidenceof bacteria, chemical irritant, or foreign body has occurred in such diseasesas 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.
Primary peritonitis usually occurs in people who have an accumulation of fluid in their abdomens. Ascites is a common complication of severe cirrhosis ofthe 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 conditioncauses bacteria to spill into the abdominal cavity. Bacteria are normal residents of a healthy intestine, but they should have no way to escape and enterthe 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 underlyingcause 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. Becausewhite 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 abdomenin 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 ofa perforation, air will have escaped into the abdomen and will be visible onthe 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 repairedat this time. If a clear diagnosis of pelvic inflammatory disease or pancreatitis can be made, however, surgery is not usually performed. Peritonitis fromany 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 areusually not under the voluntary control of an individual. However, prompt treatment can prevent complications.