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Appendicitis

Do you know the character Madeline? In one of the stories, she awakens one night at boarding school with a bad pain in her belly. The doctor says it's her appendix causing the pain, so she's rushed to the hospital for an operation. Soon, she recovers and feels much better.

But what is an appendix and why would it need to be removed?

What Is Appendicitis?

Your appendix (say: uh-pen-dix) is a small, finger-shaped pouch connected to your large intestine, in the lower right part of your belly (or abdomen). The appendix really has no purpose. So if a kid needs to have it removed, his or her body will work just fine after the operation. Some researchers think that many, many years ago, the appendix was once a useful part of the digestive system, but we don't need it anymore.

When your appendix gets inflamed, or swells up, it's called appendicitis (say: uh-pen-di-sye-tis). Both kids and adults can get appendicitis. There isn't always an obvious reason why appendicitis happens. Sometimes it happens after there is an infection in the intestine. Sometimes something causes a blockage in the appendix, then it gets inflamed.

Appendicitis is not contagious. This means you can't catch it from anyone who has it. But there isn't much you can do to prevent appendicitis from happening.

How Do People Know if They Have It?

People have different types of symptoms when they have appendicitis. Someone with appendicitis might feel as if he or she is having stomach cramps or really bad indigestion.

Usually, the first symptom is a bellyache around the belly button. The bellyache can be worse with moving, jumping, coughing, or deep breaths. Sometimes, vomiting follows. After a few hours, the pains tend to move down to the lower right side of the belly. Sometimes the pain can become sharp and intense in this area — enough to keep a kid up at night.

A person with appendicitis will not feel very hungry and might have a slight fever. Some people do not want to move around because they feel better if they lie down and curl up.

What Do Doctors Do?

Any time you have belly pain, you should tell your mom, dad, or other adult who's caring for you. If your doctor thinks you could have appendicitis, you would need to go in for an office visit or to the emergency department. At either place, a doctor will examine you, paying close attention to your belly.

The doctor can check for tenderness over your abdomen, especially over the lower right side of your belly, a spot known as McBurney's point. This spot hurts if a kid has appendicitis.

The doctor also may test a small blood sample to see if there are lots of white blood cells, which means there could be an infection in the body. The doctor may also check a urine sample to make sure there is no infection in the urine. Sometimes, doctors will take a special picture like an X-ray, CAT scan, or ultrasound of the abdomen.

If the doctor decides that a kid has appendicitis, the appendix will need to be removed in an operation. You won't be allowed to eat or drink anything until after the operation.

To prepare for an appendectomy (the name for surgery that removes the appendix), a kid will be given anesthesia. This puts him or her into a kind of deep sleep and keeps the kid from feeling pain during the surgery.

During the operation, a surgeon will make a small cut in the abdomen and remove the appendix. The operation will leave a tiny scar.

After the Appendix Is Gone

After an appendectomy, a kid will stay in the hospital for a few days. The time that kids need to recover from this operation varies, but they usually return to school in about 1 week. Be sure to ask your doctor if you have any questions about this.

A person who's had an appendectomy will feel better soon, and won't feel any different without an appendix. And here's some more good news: The kid won't ever have to worry about appendicitis again!

Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: July 2012