It’s not unusual for children to experience stomachache. Usually, it’s not a cause for alarm and may be caused by certain factors like constipation, swallowing air or mild food allergies. But what if your child’s stomach pain intensifies and lasts for more than a day? Watch out: It may be appendicitis.
Basic Facts About Appendicitis in Children
Appendicitis is most common in the second decade of a person’s life, so it’s not surprising that children and teens are more prone to this condition.
In the U.S., 80,000 children experience appendicitis (also known as pediatric appendicitis) every year, and it’s in fact the most common reason for emergency abdominal surgery during childhood.1
Note: Appendicitis Symptoms in Children Are Different From Adults
As with adult appendicitis, abdominal pain is often the primary symptom of pediatric appendicitis. Children 2 years old and younger may complain of pain in their lower belly, and exhibit diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal swelling.
In older children, however, pain near the bellybutton is the first symptom, which then gradually moves to the lower right part of the abdomen.2,3 The pain does not go away, even if the child stays still, and moving around actually worsens it.4 Taking deep breaths, sneezing and coughing can also make the pain worse.5
But this is where the similarities between childhood and adult appendicitis end. Experts have found that the other hallmark signs of this disorder that older patients experience — nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite — may not always be predictive of pediatric appendicitis.6
Instead, children may experience very high fever (reaching 104°F or 40°C) and a symptom called “rebound tenderness:” after pressure is applied on the lower right abdomen and quickly released, a sharp pain develops.
Children may also have a high white blood cell count (10,000 or more per microliter7), which is a sign of an infection in the body.8
If You Suspect Your Child Has Appendicitis, Call Your Doctor Immediately
If not addressed quickly, an inflamed appendix can rupture and may lead to complications. Thirty percent of children diagnosed with this condition will have their appendix ruptured. Having a burst appendix is also more common in children below 5 years old.9 Over 80 percent of children ages 3 years old and younger will have their appendix ruptured before they are brought in for surgical treatment.10
The appendix can burst 24 to 72 hours after the symptoms first manifest. This then causes pain to spread across the entire abdomen, and will also come with very high fever reaching 104°F (40°C).11
Appendicitis in children should never be treated lightly, so if any of the symptoms above manifest in your child, contact your physician immediately. Refrain from giving your child any painkiller, food or drinks. This medical emergency can be treated and full recovery is possible, but it must be addressed immediately before it worsens and brings on severe complications.