Appendicitis Treatment with Antibiotics

Medical Author: Jay W. Marks, MD
Medical Editor: Dennis Lee, MD

One of the options for managing mild to moderately severe appendicitis that is unlikely to be associated with major perforation of the appendix and complications is treatment with antibiotics but no surgery. Patients often resolve their inflammation with antibiotics alone, but it has not been clear how many respond to antibiotics alone and what happens to them in the longer term, that is, over the ensuing weeks, months, or years. Specifically, does appendicitis recur and/or is surgery ultimately required?

A Swedish study looked specifically at these questions. The study randomized 252 men ages 15-50, to surgery or antibiotic treatment alone, excluding patients with a high suspicion of major perforation or complications. The antibiotic-treated patients received intravenous antibiotics for two days and then were switched to oral antibiotics for 10 days. Antibiotic-treated patients who did not respond within 24 hours to the antibiotics went to surgery immediately.

Fifteen antibiotic-treated patients did not respond to antibiotics alone (12% of patients) and went to surgery immediately. The numbers of patients who experienced a major perforation identified at the time of surgery were the same in the surgery-treated group and the antibiotic treated group, 5%, suggesting that waiting 24 hours to see if antibiotics alone would work did not lead to more perforations. Most of the antibiotic-treated patients (88%) recovered without surgery, demonstrating that antibiotics are very effective for treating mild to moderate appendicitis. Within the following five years, however, almost one-quarter (24%) of the patients who responded to antibiotics alone developed a second episode of appendicitis with most of the recurrences during the first year. (All of the recurrences were treated with surgery.)