Signs and Symptoms of Diverticulitis

woman with diverticulitis experiencing stomach pain

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Diverticulitis is a digestive system condition, which causes diverticula (or, small pockets on the lining of the large intestine) to become swollen or inflamed. You can develop diverticulitis as a result of an infection, but sometimes it can occur spontaneously.

The most common symptom of diverticulitis is abrupt (acute) pain in your stomach, usually near the lower part of the left side. This is where the sigmoid colon is located, which is the most frequent site of infection with diverticulitis. You might also experience other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, and fever.

Pain Symptoms

Pain is the most common symptom of diverticulitis. Most of the time, the pain appears in the lower left part of the abdomen as diverticulitis most often affects the sigmoid area of the colon. The colon is part of the large intestine and plays a role in removing water and some nutrients from your food to help leftover waste pass through your digestive system.

The inflammation that diverticulitis causes can also lead to swelling and tenderness. Some people with the condition may also experience bloating, cramping, or general discomfort. Generally, the onset of pain happens rapidly and without warning. But sometimes, you might have discomfort that starts slowly and becomes increasingly painful over time.

Digestive System Symptoms

Diverticulitis can cause a host of digestive symptoms. If you receive a diagnosis for the condition, you may experience:

It's important to note that these symptoms are vague and general—meaning that having these symptoms doesn't automatically mean you have diverticulitis. Several conditions can cause digestive system changes, so it's important to visit your healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis before trying treatments to improve symptoms.

Infectious Symptoms

Some people have full-body symptoms with diverticulitis. In most cases, this means that an underlying infection caused diverticulitis symptoms to occur.

Your provider can use several lab tests to determine whether an underlying infection caused diverticulitis symptoms. These tests may include a white blood cell count (WBC), urine test, CT scan, or colonoscopy. If your provider determines that your symptoms are caused by an infection, it may also be common to experience symptoms such as a general feeling of illness, fever, and chills.

Rare Symptoms

Although not common, sometimes diverticulitis can cause serious complications. If you have severe diverticulitis, you might also experience:

  • Abscess: A sac of pus that can develop in the lining of your intestine which can often be difficult to treat with just medication
  • Bowel perforation: Occurs when the inflammation weakens your intestinal wall, causing stool (poop) to leak outside the intestine
  • Peritonitis: Inflammation of the abdominal (stomach) wall which can cause severe stomach pain, a swollen abdomen, and fever or chills
  • Obstruction: Acute (rapid onset) diverticulitis can restrict the space inside the intestine, causing a blockage and making it difficult for your digestive system to work properly
  • Bleeding: Diverticulitis may cause blood in your stool or blood coming outing of your anus

Any of these symptoms can be life-threatening. If you're noticing these signs, it's a good idea to contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible for an evaluation and treatment, if necessary.

Symptoms in Children

Most people who receive a diverticulitis diagnosis are over the age of 40. That said, the condition is usually uncommon in children. However, there is some evidence that suggests the rates of diverticulitis are occurring more often in children today. Research on diverticulitis in children remains ongoing and the cause of the condition in children is not fully understood at this time.

If your child does have diverticulitis, research currently shows evidence that children and adults experience similar symptoms. The most common symptom your child may complain about is stomach pain.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you have mild symptoms of diverticulitis like nausea, constipation, or diarrhea, you should call your healthcare provider to discuss your condition. You won't know you have diverticulitis unless you get tested for the condition—and it's important to not wait too long before seeing your provider, especially because diverticulitis can sometimes cause life-threatening complications.

You may need to call for immediate medical help or make a trip to the emergency department if you or a loved one have:

  • Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
  • A fever (generally above 100.4 F) that does not get better with at-home treatment
  • Stomach or back pain that starts rapidly and gets worse
  • Diarrhea that is severe or does not stop
  • Worsening symptoms, especially if you have already received a diverticulitis diagnosis

A Quick Review

Diverticulitis is a digestive system condition that causes inflammation in the lining of the large intestine. The most common symptom of the condition is severe stomach pain in the lower left part of the abdomen. However, fever, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea may also be common.

It's important to note that diverticulitis can have serious complications—but these complications are rare. However, it's still important to visit your healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment if you are experiencing symptoms or noticing changes in your overall health and well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who is most likely to get diverticulitis?

    Diverticulitis is most likely to be found in people over the age of 40 and the risk increases as you get older. You may also be at risk if you have a family history of the condition or eat a diet that is low in fiber. 

  • Can a colonoscopy detect diverticulitis?

    A healthcare provider will often use imaging tests like a CT scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to diagnose diverticulitis. However, a colonoscopy can also detect diverticulitis. But, healthcare providers recommend avoiding a colonoscopy during a diverticulitis flare-up, or a period where symptoms are most active.

  • What is a diverticulitis flare-up like?

    Each person can have different symptoms during a diverticulitis flare-up. Most people experience pain, but other symptoms like fever, chills, nausea, and changes in bowel movements can also occur.

  • Can diverticulitis go away on its own?

    In people with a healthy immune system, diverticulitis often goes away on its own without treatment. If you have a weakened immune system (e.g., due to an autoimmune condition), you may need antibiotics or surgery to treat the condition.

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