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A sharp pain in the abdomen can often be triggered by a buildup of gas. But it can also be a symptom of appendicitis.

Knowing how to tell the difference between the two is important, as an inflamed appendix can be a life-threatening medical emergency.

Your appendix is a small, oblong pouch that descends from your colon in your lower right abdomen. It doesn’t serve any vital function.

If your appendix becomes obstructed, it can cause inflammation and infection. This is what’s known as appendicitis. Treatment most often involves surgical removal of the appendix.

Pain that’s caused by gas tends to be short-lived and usually doesn’t require treatment.

The pain may be caused by swallowing air while you’re eating or drinking. Gas can also build up in your digestive tract due to bacteria in your gut that breaks down food, releasing gas in the process. Passing gas can often help the pain go away.

Read on to learn more about the differences between gas pain and appendicitis.

The most telltale symptom of appendicitis is a sudden, sharp pain that starts on the right side of your lower abdomen.

It may also start near your belly button and then move lower to your right. The pain may feel like a cramp at first, and it may get worse when you cough, sneeze, or move.

The pain usually doesn’t go away until the inflamed appendix is surgically removed.

Other symptoms of appendicitis often include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • a low-grade fever
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • abdominal bloating
  • little or no appetite

What are the symptoms of a ruptured appendix?

The risk with appendicitis is that, if left untreated, your appendix could rupture.

How long does this typically take? From the time you first notice any symptoms, it can take between 36 and 72 hours before your appendix bursts.

In some instances, that timeframe can be even shorter. That’s why it’s so important to take those early symptoms seriously.

Signs that your appendix has ruptured may be delayed for a few hours. Because the pressure — and source of the pain — inside your appendix is relieved when it bursts, you might initially feel better.

But once your appendix bursts, the bacteria that was inside your appendix can spill into your abdominal cavity, causing inflammation and infection. This is called peritonitis.

Peritonitis is a serious condition that needs immediate medical attention.

Symptoms of peritonitis may include:

  • pain and tenderness throughout your abdomen
  • pain that worsens with movement or touch
  • nausea and vomiting
  • bloating
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • an urge to pass gas
  • fever and chills

These symptoms can last until treatment begins and may worsen with each passing hour.

Appendicitis symptoms in children

Appendicitis can occur at any age, but it most often strikes between the ages of 10 and 20.

Most children will likely complain of a sharp stomach pain. But there are other symptoms, too, such as:

  • walking bent over at the waist
  • lying on their side with knees drawn upward
  • nausea and vomiting
  • tenderness to the touch

Keep in mind that children may not be able to describe their symptoms or pain very well, or in much detail.

Appendicitis symptoms during pregnancy

Although rare, appendicitis can also occur during pregnancy.

Signs of appendicitis during pregnancy are similar to the signs of appendicitis in people who aren’t pregnant. However, the appendix sits higher in the abdomen during pregnancy because the growing baby shifts the position of the intestines. As a result, the sharp pain associated with an inflamed appendix may be felt higher up on the right side of your abdomen.

A ruptured appendix can be risky for both the mother and baby.

A traditional appendectomy (surgical removal of the appendix) can also be more challenging during pregnancy. However, according to a 2016 study, a minimally invasive procedure known as laparoscopic appendectomy seems to be a safe procedure during pregnancy with a low risk of complications.

Pain from gas can feel like knots in your stomach. You may even have the sensation that gas is moving through your intestines.

Unlike appendicitis, which tends to cause pain localized on the lower right side of the abdomen, gas pain can be felt anywhere in your abdomen. You may even feel the pain up in your chest.

Other symptoms include:

  • burping
  • flatulence
  • a pressure in your abdomen
  • bloating and distention (a visible increase in the size of your belly)

Gas pain tends to last a few minutes to a few hours, and usually goes away without any treatment.

If you have pain that you think is caused by gas but lasts for more than 24 hours, see a doctor as soon as possible. The pain may be a sign of something more serious.

If the pain comes on suddenly and is isolated in your lower right abdomen, pay close attention to other symptoms, such as fever, nausea, and GI issues.

If you have some of these symptoms and the pain doesn’t go away or gets worse, go to the emergency room. If you have appendicitis, you’ll want to get immediate medical care.

Making a diagnosis

A doctor will need to do a physical examination to make a proper diagnosis. This will involve the doctor gently pressing on the painful area.

If the pain get worse when the doctor presses down and then releases, it could indicate that the tissue around the appendix is inflamed.

A response known as “guarding” may also suggest that your body is trying to protect an inflamed appendix. What this means is that, when anticipating pressure on the painful area, you tighten your abdominal muscles rather than relaxing them.

A review of your recent symptoms and medical history is also crucial to making a diagnosis.

Questions your doctor may ask

Your doctor or healthcare provider will need to know details about your symptoms and medical history.

Be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • When did the symptoms begin?
  • How would you describe the pain (sharp, achey, crampy, etc.)?
  • Have you had similar symptoms before?
  • Has the pain come and gone, or has it been constant since it started?
  • What have you eaten in the past 24 hours?
  • Have you done any exercise recently that might have caused you to pull a muscle or develop a cramp?

What kinds of tests can you expect?

There’s no blood test that can specifically identify appendicitis (or gas). There is a test, though, that can show whether there’s an increase in your white blood cells.

If your white blood cell count is high, it could suggest that you’re fighting some kind of infection.

Your doctor may also recommend a urine test. This could help indicate whether a urinary tract infection or kidney stones are causing your symptoms.

Your doctor may use an imaging test to determine whether your appendix is inflamed.

An ultrasound and a computed tomography (CT) scan are both highly accurate imaging devices. However, according to one study, there may still be some challenges in diagnosing acute appendicitis with these imaging tests.

Treatment of appendicitis usually involves the surgical removal of the appendix. Called an appendectomy, this procedure can often be done as an outpatient operation.

There are two types of appendectomies and with both types of surgeries, antibiotics are often prescribed to treat any remaining infection:

Open surgery

Open surgery involves one incision in the lower right abdomen. This is especially helpful if your appendix has burst and the area around the appendix needs to be treated for infection.

Laparoscopic surgery

Laparoscopic surgery involves a few small incisions.

A tube called a cannula is inserted into one of the incisions. This tube fills the abdomen with gas which expands it and helps the surgeon get a better look at the appendix.

Another thin, flexible tool called a laparoscope is then inserted through that incision. It contains a tiny camera that displays images on a nearby monitor. The camera helps guide the surgeon with instruments (to remove the appendix), that are inserted through another small incision.

Laparoscopic surgery has fewer risks than open surgery and has a shorter recovery time.

Most gas pain is triggered by diet, so making some changes to what you eat and drink may help you avoid or limit this type of pain.

It may be helpful to keep a food diary of everything you eat and drink, and to note when you experience gas pain. That can help you identify connections between foods or beverages and your symptoms.

Common triggers of gas include:

  • beans
  • dairy products
  • carbonated beverages
  • high-fiber foods
  • fatty foods

To help ease your gas pain, you may want to try these home remedies:

Over-the-counter remedies, such as simethicone (Gas-X, Mylanta), may help clump gas bubbles together so they can be passed more easily.

Lactase supplements may be helpful if you’re lactose intolerant and have pain and other symptoms after eating dairy products.

Walking and other physical activity may also help you release trapped gas. If your gas pain persists or if it’s an ongoing issue, be sure to see a doctor to find out why.

Shop for home remedies now:

Abdominal pain from gas and appendicitis can feel similar at first. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is to pay careful attention to any other symptoms.

If you start having abdominal pain, especially in your lower right side, be on the lookout for fever, nausea, and loss of appetite. These symptoms, along with abdominal pain, could signal appendicitis.

Similar pain that goes away on its own without other symptoms is likely a buildup of gas.

If you suspect appendicitis, err on the side of caution and get medical attention quickly. A ruptured appendix can be a serious health emergency.