"I went to the doctor recently with a bad stomach bug and she asked me if I still had my appendix. What a random question! I think I’d know if I had appendicitis."
You’re partly right. Appendicitis does cause searing stomach pain in the lower right area of the stomach that is often unmistakable as appendicitis pain. But that is later in the disease process. Early appendicitis can cause symptoms very similar to the stomach bug. So, how do you tell the difference? First, you need to know a little bit about the appendix and how appendicitis happens.
What, Where & How of Appendicitis
The appendix is a small, long pouch that is attached to the large intestine. There’s some debate about whether this appendix has any purpose, we know that people can live normal, healthy lives without it. So when the appendix becomes diseased, the treatment is to remove it surgically.
The appendix is a pouch, open on one end. If the end of that pouch is blocked, bacteria can build up inside, causing the organ to swell and eventually burst if not removed. If the appendix bursts, treatment changes quickly from a quick and easy surgery to a complex procedure and potentially life-threatening infection as that bacteria floods the abdomen. Doctors want to avoid a burst appendix if at all possible, which is why they will rule out appendicitis pretty much any time you go to them for stomach-related complaints.
Symptoms of both Stomach Bug & Appendicitis
The early signs of appendicitis are similar to the stomach bug, as well as other causes of stomach pain.
General stomach pain – It can be hard to pinpoint exactly where the pain is or it might be concentrated around the belly button. Over time the pain may migrate (or move) to the lower right area of the abdomen. Pain may also increase when you cough or sneeze.
Nausea and/or vomiting – This is a classic hallmark of stomach bug and many are surprised to learn it is also a common early sign of appendicitis. It is also the main symptom, along with belly bloating, of appendicitis in children under 2.
Low-grade fever – Fevers may become higher as an infection worsens, but typically, they start off low. Normal body temperature ranges from 97.5 to 98.9°F (orally). A low-grade fever is typically anything above your normal but lower than 100.4°F.
The Telltale Sign of Appendicitis
Lower-right quadrant pain – that’s what doctors are looking for if they suspect appendicitis. What does that mean exactly? Imagine dividing your stomach area into four sections: A line down the middle of your torso intersects with a second from side to side at your belly button. Appendicitis pain tends to migrate toward that lower right section.
Stomach Bug Symptoms
Every patient is different and it is possible that people with appendicitis can have non-typical symptoms. But, in general, people with appendicitis do not have these common symptoms of stomach bug:
- Watery diarrhea (or less commonly, bloody diarrhea)
- Stomach cramps
- Muscle aches, joint aches or general achiness
- Chills, sweating or clammy skin
During pregnancy, women with appendicitis may also experience gas, cramps, heartburn and alternating diarrhea and constipation – which are all also common pregnancy discomforts. Because babies take up a lot of abdominal space, pregnant women may experience appendicitis pain much higher than normal.
Talking To Your Doctor About Stomach Symptoms
As you can see, your doctor was completely right to ask about your appendix when you came in with stomach bug symptoms. And if you end up in the emergency room with similar symptoms, you can expect the same question (along with exams and tests to help determine the cause of your symptoms). Because on the small chance your symptoms could be appendix-related, getting treatment fast is critical to a speedy and relatively simple recovery.
If you have concerns, don’t wait. If you are not sure where to go, check out this guide to figure out when to go to an Emergency Room versus an Urgent Care or a doctor’s office: Urgent Care or ER. And don’t forget, you can talk to a registered nurse for free 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 1-800-386-9355. Nurses On-Call is a free service offered by HCA Midwest Health.
When to Go to the Emergency Room
There are many causes of stomach pain, from stomach bug to appendicitis. The key is knowing when to wait and when to get help. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms it’s time to find a local ER:
- Stomach is sensitive to the touch
- Pain is severe
- Unable to stand upright due to the pain
- Pain comes on suddenly
- Fever as well as pain
- Blood in your vomit or stool
- Pain that starts in one place and travels to the stomach or that starts in the stomach and travels somewhere else
- Pain after recent surgery
- Pain during pregnancy (call to discuss with your obstetrician too, if possible)
- Pain that wakes you up from sleep.
Fast care when you need it most.See Average ER Wait Times