The main manifestations of peritonitis are acute abdominal pain, abdominal tenderness and abdominal guarding, 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 (a.k.a. rebound tenderness, 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). The presence of these signs in a patient 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 innervation of the visceral peritoneal layer), and may become localized later (with the involvement of the somatically innervated parietal peritoneal layer). Peritonitis is an example of an acute abdomen.
Diffuse abdominal rigidity ("washboard abdomen") is often present, especially in generalized peritonitis
A diagnosis of peritonitis is based primarily on the clinical manifestations described above. If peritonitis is strongly suspected, then surgery is performed without further delay for other 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 patients with ascites, a diagnosis of peritonitis is made via paracentesis (abdominal tap): More than 250 polymorphonucleate cells per μL 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 dehydrated patients, 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 patient'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 are actually isolated, therapy will of course be targeted on them.
Gram positive and gram negative organisms must be covered. Out of the Cephalosporins, cefoxitin and cefotetan can be used to cover gram positives, gram negatives, and anaerobes. 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.
On May 13, 1864, 21-year-old Private William Christman of Pennsylvania, who had died of peritonitis, became the first military man buried at Arlington. The Swiss Freudian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach, best known for developing a projective test known as the Rorschach inkblot test, died of peritonitis in 1922 at the age of 37.
Famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini died of peritonitis after a fan asked to punch him in the stomach, a practice that had become a part of Houdini's repertoire. Speculation remains in regard to the exact reason for the performer's death, but one medical professional has suggested that the punch caused a rupture in Houdini's intestine. Following Houdini's initial refusal of surgical treatment—four physicians tried to persuade him to undergo surgery—he died two days later on October 31, 1926, even though he eventually agreed to undergo surgery.
Actor Rudolph Valentino died of peritonitis on August 23, 1926, after suffering a ruptured appendix. He also developed pleuritis in his left lung and died several hours after entering into a comatose state.