Most people are pretty familiar with run-of-the-mill tummy troubles like constipation and diarrhea. You've probably also had the displeasure of experiencing food poisoning or a stomach virus at least once or twice in your life. While appendicitis is much less common, about 5 percent of the population eventually ends up with it, and if you fall into that unlucky group, you'll need to figure it out as soon as possible.
"If it is not treated, your appendix can rupture, which can be life-threatening," said Jennifer Caudle, DO, a board-certified family physician and assistant professor at Rowan School of Osteopathic Medicine.
Not every case of appendicitis will lead to the organ bursting, but the longer the condition goes unchecked, the greater the risk. Here are some warning signs that warrant a call to your doc or maybe even a trip to the ER.
Your stomach hurts more than it ever has before.
Appendicitis usually causes severe pain that extends from the belly button to the lower right side of the abdomen, says Caudle. While this doesn't necessarily mean your appendix is about to burst, you may need an imaging test, like a CT scan, to find out.
Dan Gingold, MD, an emergency physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, notes that some appendicitis patients have a different type of discomfort: If it hurts when you're doing things like walking, coughing, or going over a bump in a car, your whole abdominal wall could be inflamed. Your appendix might be on the verge of bursting, or it might have already ruptured. See a doc stat.
You're nauseous, vomiting, and have no appetite.
You might just be battling a stomach bug, and not everyone with appendicitis will have these symptoms. But if you're feeling really queasy in addition to having bad pain, get checked out. "Inflammation of the appendix sometimes impacts other aspects of the GI tract and the nervous system and leads to nausea and vomiting," said Caudle.
You're running to the bathroom a lot more than usual.
In some people, the appendix is positioned lower in the pelvis, so it's pretty close to the bladder. And when the bladder comes into contact with an inflamed appendix, the bladder also becomes inflamed and irritated, said Cedrek McFadden, MD, a board-certified GI surgeon at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville and the Greenville Health System. As a result, you may feel like you have to pee all the time—and it hurts when you do. Of course, this could also signal a UTI, but when coupled with other symptoms on this list it could point to appendicitis.
You're shivering and running a fever.
A fever and chills means there's inflammation somewhere in your body. If your appendix is inflamed, "the body responds by releasing several chemicals to ring the alarm and bring fighter cells to the area, which can manifest as localized pain as well as whole-body symptoms like fever and chills," said McFadden. If you also have stomach pain—or if your fever is worsening—consult your doctor.
You're not all there.
If you're confused or disoriented, that might mean the infection is getting worse; it might have even entered your bloodstream (aka sepsis), which can be fatal, said Gingold.
"It's not that anything is going on in the brain—just that the infection is getting worse and expending a lot of body resources including oxygen, so the brain doesn't get enough and doesn't work normally," he explained.
Any time someone is acting erratically, don't delay: Whether it turns out to be appendicitis or something else that can alter their mental state (like a stroke), the sooner you get help the better.
This article first appeared on Prevention.