Pediatric acute appendicitis: Is it time for nonoperative treatment (NOT)?


Clinical question

What are the differences in rates of treatment failure, duration of hospitalization, and cost between nonoperative treatment (NOT) for acute uncomplicated appendicitis versus urgent appendectomy?


Acute appendicitis is found in around 5% of children presenting for urgent or emergent evaluation of abdominal pain. It is the most common illness prompting emergency abdominal surgery in children.

Dr. Samuel C. Stubblefield s a pediatric hospitalist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., and a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

Dr. Samuel C. Stubblefield

Possible complications from appendicitis include perforation, gangrenous changes, peritonitis, and sepsis. To avoid these significant morbidities, surgical teaching for more than a century has recommended urgent removal of the appendix in acute uncomplicated appendicitis. Appendicitis is classified as “complicated” if there is evidence of perforation, abscess, or gangrenous changes, and “uncomplicated” otherwise.

Several trials in adults have shown that urgent surgery may not be necessary, and NOT of uncomplicated appendicitis may be both effective and safe. NOT involves a course of IV antibiotics and careful clinical monitoring while hospitalized, then a course of oral antibiotics after discharge. Regimens vary but include coverage for aerobic and anaerobic gut flora, such as piperacillin-tazobactam followed by amoxicillin. Little is known about the safety and efficacy of NOT in children.

Study design


Search strategy

PubMed, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Cochrane Library were searched for relevant studies. This search identified 527 potential articles, of which the authors examined the full text of 68 and ultimately identified 5 single-center trials for analysis (4 prospective cohort trials and 1 randomized, controlled trial).


A total of 404 patients with uncomplicated appendicitis were seen in all trials: 168 received NOT and 236 received standard surgical care (urgent appendectomy). In the single randomized, controlled trial, patients were assigned NOT or surgical care randomly. In the other trials parental preference directed therapy.

The heterogeneity of the design, populations, definitions of illness, duration of follow-up, and NOT treatment regimens made the meta-analysis challenging. Antibiotic options for NOT varied by center but included a course of IV antibiotics followed by 7-10 days of oral antibiotics. NOT success was defined as no need for surgery within 48 hours and no recurrence of appendicitis within 1 month. Of the 236 patients who received standard surgical care, all had appendicitis and 1 had a complication requiring repeat operation. Of the NOT group, 16 (9.5%) had treatment failures, including 3 with perforated appendicitis, and 45 (27%) went on to have an appendectomy within the following year, yielding a risk ratio of failure versus standard treatment of 8.9 (95% confidence interval, 2.7-29.8). A subgroup analysis of patients with appendicoliths who received NOT found that these patients experienced a substantially increased risk of treatment failures and recurrent appendicitis with the risk ratio versus NOT without appendicolith of 10.4 (95% CI, 1.5-74). Of the 30 patients who experienced treatment failure with NOT, 15 had appendicoliths. NOT lengthened hospital stays by 14.3 hours (95% CI, 7.5-21.1) but led to lower total costs by $1,310 (95% CI, $920-$1,690).

Bottom line

NOT may be a reasonable alternative to standard surgical management for acute uncomplicated appendicitis without appendicolith in children, with a success rate of greater than 90%. Further larger, randomized prospective studies are required to establish its safety and efficacy.


Huang L et al. Comparison of antibiotic therapy and appendectomy for acute uncomplicated appendicitis in children: A meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2017;171(5):426-34.

Dr. Stubblefield is a pediatric hospitalist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., and a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

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