What is Peritonitis?


Peritonitis is inflammation of the peritoneum, which is the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen’s inner wall. This tissue also covers and provides support to most of the abdominal organs.

This condition is often the result of a bacterial or fungal infection but it can also occur as a secondary infection that spreads from other focal points such as an untreated appendicitis.

What are the Symptoms of Peritonitis?

The most common symptom of peritonitis is severe abdominal pain. If you begin exhibiting this symptom, seek medical attention promptly in order to prevent complications that could be potentially fatal.

The first symptom, however, that most people experience with peritonitis is nausea, a poor appetite, and a dull ache in the abdominal area. This ache will rapidly transform into a severe and persistent pain that will become even worse with movement.

Other signs to look for include:

  • Chills and fever
  • Tenderness in the abdominal area
  • Abdominal distention
  • An extreme amount of thirst
  • Fluid within the abdomen
  • Being unable to pass urine, or passing only a very small amount of urine
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty with having a bowel movement or passing gas

Peritonitis Causes

Peritonitis is caused by an infection of the tissues which line the abdomen, known as the peritoneum. This infection could be caused by many different things. Sometimes it is as a result of a direct infection of the peritoneum which could have occurred through abdominal surgery. However, this is very rare and usually the infection begins elsewhere in the body.

For example, a burst stomach ulcer or appendix might create an infection which could spread to the peritoneum. Acute pancreatitis may also lead to peritonitis. It’s also possible for digestive disorders like diverticulitis and Crohn’s disease to cause peritonitis. This is because they create severe inflammation of the colon, which can cause lesions in the colon wall and result in the contents of the colon spilling into the abdomen.

Peritonitis is also closely linked with ascites, which is a buildup of fluid between the internal organs and the peritoneum. This fluid offers the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive, and can therefore make people more susceptible to an infection of the peritoneum. There are several causes of ascites, including:

  • Liver damage and cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
  • Kidney failure
  • Heart failure

Peritoneal dialysis for the treatment of ascites may also lead to peritonitis. This is because the catheter can harbor bacteria and introduce an infection to the peritoneum.

How is Peritonitis Treated?

This is a serious condition, as it can spread quickly into your blood and make its way to organs, causing organ failure and death. Your doctor will work quickly to determine the cause so that appropriate treatment can be administered.

IV antibiotics, pain medications, and antifungal medications can be used to treat infections and bring relief. Supportive treatments will also be used to treat sepsis and organ failure.

Many cases will require emergency surgery, particularly if the condition is caused by other problems, such as a perforated stomach ulcer, diverticulitis, or appendicitis.

Peritonitis Prevention

In many cases of peritonitis it is not possible to prevent the condition, since it occurs as a result of other unavoidable medical conditions or infections. However, one cause of peritonitis which could be prevented is ascites, caused by liver damage.

One of the most common causes of liver damage and cirrhosis is excessive alcohol consumption. Moderate consumption of alcohol will reduce the risk of liver cirrhosis and ascites. Subsequently, the risk of developing an infection of the peritoneum will be reduced.

People who are receiving peritoneal dialysis for ascites could develop peritonitis due to bacteria building up on the catheter. To prevent this, it’s important to thoroughly wash bands before touching the catheter. Wiping the skin which surrounds the catheter with an antiseptic wipe every day will also help to prevent infection.

Last Reviewed:
October 08, 2016
Last Updated:
December 27, 2017