The main manifestations of peritonitis are acute abdominal pain, abdominal tenderness, abdominal guarding, rigidity, which are exacerbated by moving the peritoneum, e.g., coughing (forced cough may be used as a test), flexing one's hips, or eliciting the Blumberg sign (meaning that pressing a hand on the abdomen elicits less pain than releasing the hand abruptly, which will aggravate the pain, as the peritoneum snaps back into place). Rigidity is highly specific for diagnosing peritonitis (specificity: 76–100%). The presence of these signs in a person is sometimes referred to as peritonism. The localization of these manifestations depends on whether peritonitis is localized (e.g., appendicitis or diverticulitis before perforation), or generalized to the whole abdomen. In either case, pain typically starts as a generalized abdominal pain (with involvement of poorly localizing visceral innervation of the visceral peritoneal layer), and may become localized later (with involvement of the somatic innervation of the parietal peritoneal layer). Peritonitis is an example of an acute abdomen.
Diffuse abdominal rigidity (abdominal guarding) is often present, especially in generalized peritonitis
Sterile abdominal surgery, under normal circumstances, causes localised or minimal generalised peritonitis, which may leave behind a foreign body reaction or fibrotic adhesions. However, peritonitis may also be caused by the rare case of a sterile foreign body inadvertently left in the abdomen after surgery (e.g., gauze, sponge).
A diagnosis of peritonitis is based primarily on the clinical manifestations described above. Rigidity (involuntary contraction of the abdominal muscles) is the most specific exam finding for diagnosing peritonitis. If focal peritonitis is detected, further work-up should be done. If diffuse peritonitis is detected, then urgent surgical consultation should be obtained, and may warrant surgery without further investigations. Leukocytosis, hypokalemia, hypernatremia, and acidosis may be present, but they are not specific findings. Abdominal X-rays may reveal dilated, edematous intestines, although such X-rays are mainly useful to look for pneumoperitoneum, an indicator of gastrointestinal perforation. The role of whole-abdomen ultrasound examination is under study and is likely to expand in the future. Computed tomography (CT or CAT scanning) may be useful in differentiating causes of abdominal pain. If reasonable doubt still persists, an exploratory peritoneal lavage or laparoscopy may be performed. In people with ascites, a diagnosis of peritonitis is made via paracentesis (abdominal tap): More than 250 polymorphonuclear cells per ?L is considered diagnostic. In addition, Gram stain is almost always negative, whereas culture of the peritoneal fluid can determine the microorganism responsible and determine their sensitivity to antimicrobial agents.
In normal conditions, the peritoneum appears greyish and glistening; it becomes dull 2-4 hours after the onset of peritonitis, initially with scarce serous or slightly turbid fluid. Later on, the exudate becomes creamy and evidently suppurative; in people who are dehydrated, it also becomes very inspissated. The quantity of accumulated exudate varies widely. It may be spread to the whole peritoneum, or be walled off by the omentum and viscera. Inflammation features infiltration by neutrophils with fibrino-purulent exudation.
Depending on the severity of the person's state, the management of peritonitis may include:
Antibiotics are usually administered intravenously, but they may also be infused directly into the peritoneum. The empiric choice of broad-spectrum antibiotics often consist of multiple drugs, and should be targeted against the most likely agents, depending on the cause of peritonitis (see above); once one or more agents grow in cultures isolated, therapy will be target against them.
Gram positive and gram negative organisms must be covered. Out of the cephalosporins, cefoxitin and cefotetan can be used to cover gram positive bacteria, gram negative bacteria, and anaerobic bacteria. Beta-lactams with beta lactamase inhibitors can also be used, examples include ampicillin/sulbactam, piperacillin/tazobactam, and ticarcillin/clavulanate.Carbapenems are also an option when treating primary peritonitis as all of the carbapenems cover gram positives, gram negatives, and anaerobes except for ertapenem. The only fluoroquinolone that can be used is moxifloxacin because this is the only fluoroquinolone that covers anaerobes. Finally, tigecycline is a tetracycline that can be used due to its coverage of gram positives and gram negatives. Empiric therapy will often require multiple drugs from different classes.
Surgery (laparotomy) is needed to perform a full exploration and lavage of the peritoneum, as well as to correct any gross anatomical damage that may have caused peritonitis. The exception is spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, which does not always benefit from surgery and may be treated with antibiotics in the first instance.
If properly treated, typical cases of surgically correctable peritonitis (e.g., perforated peptic ulcer, appendicitis, and diverticulitis) have a mortality rate of about <10% in otherwise healthy people. The mortality rate rises to about 40% in the elderly, or in those with significant underlying illness, as well as cases that present late (after 48 hours).