What Is Diverticulitis?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on September 15, 2019

Diverticulitis is a complication of a condition with a similar name, diverticulosis. That’s when small pockets form and poke through the wall of the digestive tract. Doctors call these pouches “diverticula.”

When these pockets get inflamed or infected, you have diverticulitis, which can be painful.

What Causes Diverticulitis?

Doctors aren’t sure. Some studies suggest your genes might play a role.

Diverticulitis may happen when bacteria or stool get caught in a pouch in your colon. If you have more bad germs than good ones in your gut, that might cause it, too.

Other things can raise your odds of getting diverticulitis, as well. They include:

What Are the Symptoms?

Signs can come on suddenly. Often, you’ll start to feel sharp pain in the lower left side of your belly. It might grow worse over the next few days.

You also might have:

How Is It Diagnosed?

You might not know you have diverticulitis until you start noticing pain and symptoms. Your doctor will want to do some tests to rule out other problems.

physical exam will probably be the first step. Your doctor will see if your belly is tender to the touch. If you’re a woman, you might get a pelvic exam to check your reproductive organs in case it’s a pelvic problem.

Your doctor may order imaging tests, like a CT scan. It’ll show what, if any, areas are infected. It’ll also show how mild or severe your case is.

Other tests might include:

What Are the Treatments?

If you have a mild case and see your doctor right away, it’s pretty easy to treat. You’ll probably need to rest and take a course of antibiotics by mouth. Your doctor may also suggest that you take a mild pain reliever like acetaminophen.

You may also go on a liquid or “diverticulitis diet.” You’ll start by drinking only clear liquids, such as water, broth, non-pulpy juices, ice pops, and plain tea or coffee. As you start to feel better, you can add low-fiber foods such as eggs, yogurt, and cheese, and white rice and pasta. These foods are gentle on your digestive system.

This treatment works well for most people who have clear-cut cases of diverticulitis.

What About Complications?

About 1 in 4 people who get diverticulitis will get other problems. If you do, your doctor might refer you to a gastroenterologist. That’s a doctor who specializes in the digestive system.

Complications often require some surgery or a hospital stay. They include:

Abscess. This happens when the pouches in your intestinal wall fill with infected fluid. A specialist will need to drain the pus.

Fistula. This is an abnormal passage that forms between the bowel and nearby organs.

Perforation. This is a small hole or tear in a pocket that allows the bowel contents to seep into your abdomen. It’s rare but life-threatening, and it requires emergency surgery.

Stricture. This happens when the colon narrows in the affected area.

What Types of Surgeries Are There?

There are two main types:

Primary bowel resection. In this procedure, your surgeon will remove diseased parts of the intestine and reconnect the healthy sections. You can have normal bowel movements afterward.

Bowel resection with colostomyThis needs to be done if there’s so much swelling that the surgeon can’t reconnect your colon to your rectum right away. Your doctor will create an opening in your abdomenal wall so waste can flow into a bag. Surgeons can often reconnect the bowel after the inflammation has passed.

The kind of operation you need depends on the type of complication you have and how serious it is.

Can You Prevent Diverticulitis?

Your doctor might suggest that you eat a diet that’s high in fiber. Fruits, veggies, and whole grains make your stool softer so it can pass faster and more easily through your colon. This reduces pressure in your digestive tract. It may lower your chances of diverticula forming and becoming inflamed.

WebMD Medical Reference



American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy: “Understanding Diverticulosis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Diverticulitis.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Symptoms & Causes of Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis.”

Harvard Medical School: “Diverticular Disease of the Colon.”

American College of Gastroenterology: “Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis.”

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Diverticulitis.”

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