We don’t hear about someone’s intestine rupturing very often, which makes the condition seem all-the-more scary. But what is the condition, really?
Gastrointestinal perforation occurs when a hole forms all the way through the stomach, large bowel, or small intestine, according to Healthline. A perforation may also occur in the gallbladder, and symptoms include severe stomach pain, vomiting, and fever. Gastrointestinal perforation is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical care, and the chances of recovery improve with early diagnosis and treatment.
While it’s not common to die of a ruptured intestine, it is often a sign of a larger underlying health condition, says Dr. Anton Bilchik, M.D., chief of medicine and chief of gastrointestinal research at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California. He says that diverticulitis (infection in the digestive tract) and cancer are two common causes of intestinal rupture.
“Intestines very rarely rupture spontaneously. It’s usually an unexpected complication of another illness or a surgical procedure,” he explains. “On its own, a ruptured intestine is very treatable with antibiotics or even surgery and your risk of dying from it low.”
But Dr. Bilchik adds that if the gastrointestinal perforation leads to an infection, that ups the risk of death. This can happen when bacteria, bile, stomach acid, partially digested food and even stool leak into the abdominal cavity. A person would then start to show symptoms of infection like a high fever, vomiting and severe stomach pain, which would need immediate medical attention. If the infection isn’t treated right away, that can lead to major problems, including death.
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This article was originally published March 2016. Updated January 2017.