How can the differential diagnosis of peritonitis and abdominal sepsis be narrowed on physical exam?

Updated: Jul 23, 2019
  • Author: Brian J Daley, MD, MBA, FACS, FCCP, CNSC; Chief Editor: Praveen K Roy, MD, AGAF  more...
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Answer

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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