Is It Appendicitis or Just Gas? When to Go to the ER

Abdominal pain is a common problem. It could be caused by something that’s not dangerous, such as intestinal gas. However, it could also be caused by a medical emergency such as appendicitis.

Appendicitis, which is the inflammation of the appendix, needs to be diagnosed and treated early to prevent complications. For that reason, it’s important to know the difference between appendicitis and having pain from gas in the upper or lower digestive system.

But knowing when abdominal pain is an emergency that needs diagnosis and treatment can be difficult.

This article will explain the symptoms of appendicitis in order to learn how it is different than gas pains.

Person experiencing abdominal pain

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Appendicitis Symptoms

At the start, appendicitis symptoms might seem like gas pains. One of the main symptoms of appendicitis is abdominal pain. It’s common to have abdominal pain for many reasons. It’s important to get pain, especially when it's new or severe, checked out by a healthcare provider.

Medical Emergency

An inflamed appendix is a medical emergency because it may burst and cause complications.

Pain and other symptoms from appendicitis tend to come on suddenly and get worse over the course of several hours to one or two days. The symptoms can be similar to other conditions. Keep track of the pain, where it’s located, and what it feels like and let your healthcare provider know.

Pain from appendicitis:

  • May feel worse with sneezing, coughing, deep breaths, or being palpated (pressed on)
  • May begin around the belly button and then is felt in the lower right abdomen
  • May get more intense over a period of hours

The other symptoms of appendicitis may include:

Differences Between Gas and Appendicitis

Gas in the digestive tract and appendicitis may each cause abdominal pain. However, gas pains will usually be resolved when the gas moves around or leaves the body (through burping or passing gas). Gas pains also don’t usually come on suddenly and severely and get worse over time. In addition, gas won’t cause symptoms such as fever or vomiting.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Abdominal pain is common, so it’s challenging to know when to see a healthcare provider. If you have a condition that causes abdominal pain, ask your healthcare provider when you should seek help for that pain (such as, if it gets worse or if there are other symptoms with it).

Appendicitis, however, is an emergency because an appendix can burst and cause other complications. When belly pain comes on suddenly and gets worse over a period of hours, it’s important to seek care.

This could mean calling a healthcare provider you already have a relationship with to ask about the next steps. It could also mean going to the nearest urgent care to see if a healthcare provider there can offer some direction.

But usually for severe abdominal pain—especially if accompanied by other symptoms such as fever or vomiting—it is going to mean a trip to the emergency department. Appendicitis needs to be at least ruled out because it is a medical emergency.

Diagnosis

To find out if the cause of the pain and/or other symptoms is appendicitis, there will be a need to do some tests.

Risk Factors for Appendicitis

Everyone has a baseline risk of appendicitis of about 7% or 8%. In most cases, it’s not known what has caused appendicitis or if it's due to more than one cause. Having an infection in the digestive system, an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), or a blockage inside the appendix from hardened stool or a growth are all potential causes of appendicitis.

Complications

Untreated appendicitis can result in a burst appendix as soon as 48 to 72 hours after symptoms start. An appendix that bursts can cause an infection in the abdomen. This is called peritonitis, which is a life-threatening infection. The contents of the appendix leak into the abdomen, causing an infection. This is why it’s important to have appendicitis treated right away.

Treatment

The treatment for appendicitis is usually surgery to remove the appendix (an appendectomy). Surgery may be open, with a large incision, or laparoscopic, with several small incisions. This is a common surgery that can be performed by a general surgeon. Most people recover in a few days without any complications.

There is a growing trend to treat uncomplicated appendicitis with antibiotics. However, it has been shown that appendicitis can come back again in children who are given antibiotics instead of surgery. It’s important to weigh the potential risks against the benefits when making a decision about treating appendicitis.

Summary

Appendicitis causes pain around the belly button or in the lower right side of the abdomen. It worsens over time and may be accompanied by fever, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea, and a tender, swollen belly. It is important to contact a healthcare provider for symptoms that may be appendicitis, as it is a medical emergency.

A Word From Verywell

Appendicitis is a common condition. However, it’s possible to miss if the signs and symptoms are not really clear or if tests done reveal an obviously inflamed appendix. For that reason, getting abdominal pain looked at as soon as possible is important in avoiding potential complications. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does appendicitis feel like gas pains?

    Appendicitis might feel like bad gas pains to start. However, appendicitis will usually get worse over time and become more painful. There may also be other symptoms that don’t happen with gas, such as a fever, diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting. The pain may also be worse with coughing, sneezing, or when pressing on the abdomen.

  • When should you be concerned about gas pain?

    Trapped gas can be quite painful. It isn’t usually a cause for worry, but it can be really uncomfortable. If it continues, it may help to see a healthcare provider to get advice on how to treat or prevent it with dietary changes, over-the-counter medications, or, in some cases, a prescription.

  • How long can you have appendicitis symptoms before your appendix bursts?

    Appendicitis may result in a burst appendix somewhere between 48 and 72 hours after the symptoms start. This is highly variable and based on many different factors. However, it’s a good reason to not wait to seek medical attention for abdominal pain that could be from appendicitis.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Appendicitis.

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