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Peritonitis and Abdominal Sepsis Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Brian J Daley, MD, MBA, FACS, FCCP, CNSC; Chief Editor: Julian Katz, MD  more...
 
Updated: Feb 23, 2015
 

History

The diagnosis of peritonitis is usually clinical. History should include recent abdominal surgery, previous episodes of peritonitis, travel history, use of immunosuppressive agents, and the presence of diseases (eg, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis, peptic ulcer disease) that may predispose to intra-abdominal infections.

A broad range of signs and symptoms are seen in spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (SBP). A high index of suspicion must be maintained when caring for patients with ascites, particularly those with acute clinical deterioration. As many as 30% of patients are completely asymptomatic. Manifestations of SBP may include the following:

  • Fever and chills (as many as 80% of patients)
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort (found in as many as 70% of patients)
  • Worsening or unexplained encephalopathy
  • Diarrhea
  • Ascites that does not improve following administration of diuretic medication
  • Worsening or new-onset renal failure
  • Ileus

Abdominal pain, which may be acute or insidious, is the usual chief complaint of patients with peritonitis. Initially, the pain may be dull and poorly localized (visceral peritoneum); often, it progresses to steady, severe, and more localized pain (parietal peritoneum). Abdominal pain may be exacerbated by any movement (eg, coughing, flexing the hips) and local pressure. If the underlying process is not contained, the pain becomes diffuse. In certain disease entities (eg, gastric perforation, severe acute pancreatitis, intestinal ischemia), the abdominal pain may be generalized from the beginning.

Abdominal distention may be noted, as well as signs of dysfunction of other organs. Symptoms may be subtle in patients on corticosteroids, in diabetic patients with advanced neuropathy, and in hospitalized patients, especially the very young and the very old. In the presence of ascites, decreased friction between the visceral and parietal peritoneal surfaces may reduce the symptoms of abdominal pain, as seen in patients with SBP.

Anorexia and nausea are frequent symptoms and may precede the development of abdominal pain. Vomiting may be due to underlying visceral organ pathology (ie, obstruction) or be secondary to peritoneal irritation.

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Physical Examination

On physical examination, patients with peritonitis generally appear unwell and in acute distress. Many of them have a temperature that exceeds 38° C, although patients with severe sepsis may become hypothermic. Tachycardia may be present, as a result of the release of inflammatory mediators, intravascular hypovolemia from anorexia, vomiting and fever, and third-space losses into the peritoneal cavity. With progressive dehydration, patients may become hypotensive (5-14% of patients), as well as oliguric or anuric; with severe peritonitis, they may present in overt septic shock.

When examining the abdomen of a patient with suspected peritonitis, the patient should be supine. A roll or pillows underneath the patient's knees may allow for better relaxation of the abdominal wall.

On abdominal examination, almost all patients demonstrate tenderness to palpation. In most patients—even those with generalized peritonitis and severe diffuse abdominal pain—the point of maximal tenderness or referred rebound tenderness roughly overlies the pathologic process (ie, the site of maximal peritoneal irritation).

Most patients demonstrate increased abdominal wall rigidity. The increase in abdominal wall muscular tone may be voluntary, in response to or in anticipation of the abdominal examination, or involuntary because of the peritoneal irritation. Patients with severe peritonitis often avoid all motion and keep their hips flexed to relieve the abdominal wall tension. The abdomen is often distended, with hypoactive-to-absent bowel sounds. This finding reflects a generalized ileus and may not be present if the infection is well localized. Occasionally, the abdominal examination reveals an inflammatory mass.

Signs of hepatic failure (eg, jaundice, angiomata) may be noted.

Rectal examination often elicits increased abdominal pain, particularly with inflammation of the pelvic organs, but rarely indicates a specific diagnosis. A tender inflammatory mass toward the right may indicate appendicitis, and anterior fullness and fluctuation may indicate a cul de sac abscess.

In female patients, vaginal and bimanual examination findings may be consistent with pelvic inflammatory disease (eg, endometritis, salpingo-oophoritis, tubo-ovarian abscess), but exam findings are often difficult to interpret in severe peritonitis.

A complete physical examination is important for excluding conditions whose presentation may resemble that of peritonitis. Thoracic processes with diaphragmatic irritation (eg, empyema), extraperitoneal processes (eg, pyelonephritis, cystitis, acute urinary retention), and abdominal wall processes (eg, infection, rectus hematoma) may mimic certain signs and symptoms of peritonitis. Always examine the patient for the presence of external hernias to rule out intestinal incarceration.

Remember that the presentation and the findings on clinical examination may be entirely inconclusive or unreliable in patients with significant immunosuppression (eg, severe diabetes, steroid use, posttransplant status, HIV infection), in patients with altered mental state (eg, head injury, toxic encephalopathy, septic shock, analgesic agents), in patients with paraplegia, and in patients of advanced age. With localized deep peritoneal infections, fever and/or an elevated WBC count may be the only signs present. As many as 20% of patients with SBP demonstrate very subtle signs and symptoms. New onset or deterioration of existing encephalopathy may be the only sign of the infection at the initial presentation. Most patients with tuberculous peritonitis demonstrate vague symptoms and may be afebrile.

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

Brian J Daley, MD, MBA, FACS, FCCP, CNSC Professor and Program Director, Department of Surgery, Chief, Division of Trauma and Critical Care, University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine

Brian J Daley, MD, MBA, FACS, FCCP, CNSC is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma, Southern Surgical Association, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, Association for Academic Surgery, Association for Surgical Education, Shock Society, Society of Critical Care Medicine, Southeastern Surgical Congress, Tennessee Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

BS Anand, MD Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, Baylor College of Medicine

BS Anand, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, American College of Gastroenterology, American Gastroenterological Association, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Julian Katz, MD Clinical Professor of Medicine, Drexel University College of Medicine

Julian Katz, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Gastroenterology, American College of Physicians, American Gastroenterological Association, American Geriatrics Society, American Medical Association, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics, American Trauma Society, Association of American Medical Colleges, Physicians for Social Responsibility

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Acknowledgements

BS Anand, MD Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, Baylor College of Medicine

BS Anand, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, American College of Gastroenterology, American Gastroenterological Association, and American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Alex Jacocks, MD Program Director, Professor, Department of Surgery, University of Oklahoma School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chandler Long, MD Resident Physician, Department of Surgery, University of Tennessee Medical Center-Knoxville

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Ketul R Patel, MD Resident, Department of Internal Medicine, Providence Hospital

Ketul R Patel, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Gastroenterology, American College of Physicians, and American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Michael H Piper, MD, FACG, FACP Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, Wayne State University School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Digestive Health Associates PLC

Michael H Piper, MD, FACG, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Gastroenterology, American College of Physicians, and Michigan State Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Kenneth L Reed, DO Fellow in Gastroenterology, Providence Hospital, Michigan

Kenneth L Reed, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Gastroenterology, American College of Osteopathic Internists, American Gastroenterological Association, American Osteopathic Association, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, and Crohns and Colitis Foundation of America

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

Bradley J Warren, DO, FACG, FACOI Consulting Staff, Digestive Health Associates, PLC

Bradley J Warren, DO, FACG, FACOI is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Gastroenterology, American Osteopathic Association, and American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Diagnostic and therapeutic approach to peritonitis and peritoneal abscess.
A 48-year-old man underwent suprapubic laparotomy, right hemicolectomy, and gastroduodenal resection for right colon cancer invading the first portion of the duodenum. After surgery, the patient developed abdominal pain and distention. Computed tomography (CT) scanning was used to confirm an anastomotic dehiscence. Figure A shows a contrast-enhanced scan of the abdomen and pelvis that reveals multiple fluid collections, perihepatic ascites, and mild periportal edema. A collection of fluid containing an air-fluid level is visible anterior to the left lobe of the liver. A second collection is anterior to the splenic flexure of the colon. In figure B, a third fluid collection is present in the inferior aspect of the lesser space and in the transverse mesocolon. Figure C shows the pelvis with a collection of free fluid in the rectovesical pouch.
A 78-year-old man was admitted with a history of prior surgery for small bowel obstruction and worsening abdominal pain, distended abdomen, nausea, and obstipation. In figure A, a marked amount of portal venous gas within the liver, mesenteric venous gas, and pneumatosis intestinalis are consistent with ischemic small intestine. The superior mesenteric artery appears patent. The liver has a nodular contour consistent with cirrhosis. In figures B and C, markedly distended loops of small intestine containing fluid and air-fluid levels are consistent with a small bowel obstruction. No focal fluid collections are identified.
A 35-year-old man with a history of Crohn disease presented with pain and swelling in the right abdomen. In figure A, a thickened loop of terminal ileum is evident adherent to the right anterior abdominal wall. In figure B, the right anterior abdominal wall is markedly thickened and edematous, with adjacent inflamed terminal ileum. In figure C, a right lower quadrant abdominal wall abscess and enteric fistula are observed and confirmed by the presence of enteral contrast in the abdominal wall.
Gram-negative Escherichia coli.
Table 1. Common Causes of Secondary Peritonitis
Source Regions Causes
Esophagus Boerhaave syndrome



Malignancy



Trauma (mostly penetrating)



Iatrogenic*



Stomach Peptic ulcer perforation



Malignancy (eg, adenocarcinoma, lymphoma, gastrointestinal stromal tumor)



Trauma (mostly penetrating)



Iatrogenic*



Duodenum Peptic ulcer perforation



Trauma (blunt and penetrating)



Iatrogenic*



Biliary tract Cholecystitis



Stone perforation from gallbladder (ie, gallstone ileus) or common duct



Malignancy



Choledochal cyst (rare)



Trauma (mostly penetrating)



Iatrogenic*



Pancreas Pancreatitis (eg, alcohol, drugs, gallstones)



Trauma (blunt and penetrating)



Iatrogenic*



Small bowel Ischemic bowel



Incarcerated hernia (internal and external)



Closed loop obstruction



Crohn disease



Malignancy (rare)



Meckel diverticulum



Trauma (mostly penetrating)



Large bowel and appendix Ischemic bowel



Diverticulitis



Malignancy



Ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease



Appendicitis



Colonic volvulus



Trauma (mostly penetrating)



Iatrogenic



Uterus, salpinx, and ovaries Pelvic inflammatory disease (eg, salpingo-oophoritis, tubo-ovarian abscess, ovarian cyst)



Malignancy (rare)



Trauma (uncommon)



*Iatrogenic trauma to the upper GI tract, including the pancreas and biliary tract and colon, often results from endoscopic procedures; anastomotic dehiscence and inadvertent bowel injury (eg, mechanical, thermal) are common causes of leak in the postoperative period.
Table 2. Microbial Flora of Secondary Peritonitis
Type Organism Percentage
Aerobic    
Gram negative Escherichia coli 60%
  Enterobacter/Klebsiella 26%
  Proteus 22%
  Pseudomonas 8%
Gram positive Streptococci 28%
  Enterococci 17%
  Staphylococci 7%
Anaerobic Bacteroides 72%
  Eubacteria 24%
  Clostridia 17%
  Peptostreptococci 14%
  Peptococci 11%
Fungi Candida 2%
Table 3. Microbiology of Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Peritonitis
Peritonitis



(Type)



Etiologic Organisms Antibiotic Therapy



(Suggested)



Class Type of Organism
Primary Gram-negative E coli (40%)



K pneumoniae (7%)



Pseudomonas species (5%)



Proteus species (5%)



Streptococcus species (15%)



Staphylococcus species (3%)



Anaerobic species (< 5%)



Third-generation cephalosporin
Secondary Gram-negative E coli



Enterobacter species



Klebsiella species



Proteus species



Second-generation cephalosporin



Third-generation cephalosporin



Penicillins with anaerobic activity



Quinolones with anaerobic activity



Quinolone and metronidazole



Aminoglycoside and metronidazole



Gram-positive Streptococcus species



Enterococcus species



Anaerobic Bacteroides fragilis



Other Bacteroides species



Eubacterium species



Clostridium species



Anaerobic Streptococcus species



Tertiary Gram-negative Enterobacter species



Pseudomonas species



Enterococcus species



Second-generation cephalosporin



Third-generation cephalosporin



Penicillins with anaerobic activity



Quinolones with anaerobic activity



Quinolone and metronidazole



Aminoglycoside and metronidazole



Carbapenems



Triazoles or amphotericin (considered in fungal etiology)



(Alter therapy based on culture results.)



Gram-positive Staphylococcus species
Fungal Candida species
Table 4. Ascitic Fluid Analysis Summary [4]
Routine Optional Unusual Less Helpful
Cell count Obtain culture in blood culture (BC) bottles. Tuberculosis (TB) smear and culture pH
Albumin Glucose Cytology Lactate
Total protein Lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) Triglyceride Cholesterol
  Amylase Bilirubin Fibronectin
  Gram stain   Alpha 1-antitrypsin
      Glycosaminoglycans
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