A gastrointestinal perforation is a serious condition that requires emergency medical care. Certain medical conditions and injuries can make you more likely to have a gastrointestinal perforation. But with prompt medical treatment, many people make a full recovery.
A gastrointestinal perforation is a hole in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Your GI tract is a series of hollow organs that move food and liquids through your body. These organs help digest the things you eat and drink and absorb nutrients. They include your:
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A perforation in your GI tract requires immediate medical care. A hole in your large intestine, also known as a bowel perforation, can cause stool to leak into your abdomen. A hole in your stomach or small intestine can leak food or digestive fluids into your abdomen. Without prompt treatment, gastrointestinal or bowel perforation can cause:
Injury or trauma can puncture a hole in your GI tract. Possible causes of these injuries include:
Certain medical conditions can also cause a gastrointestinal or bowel perforation, including:
Having one of these conditions doesn’t mean you will have a gastrointestinal perforation, but your risk of having one is higher. That’s why it’s important to know the signs of gastrointestinal perforation and when to seek medical care.
If you have a gastrointestinal or bowel perforation, you may experience:
Your provider may ask you:
After a physical exam, your provider may use these tests to look for a gastrointestinal perforation:
If your provider diagnoses you with a gastrointestinal perforation, you may need emergency surgery to repair it. Depending on the severity and its location, your surgery may include:
In some cases, you may need a temporary bypass for stool so your colon can rest. If you need this procedure, your surgeon:
The colostomy bag is a sealed, discreet pouch that collects stool. You or your caregiver empties the bag each day. Your provider usually removes the stoma and colostomy bag after you’ve healed.
Small gastrointestinal or bowel perforations can sometimes heal without surgery. However, you can’t know this until you have a diagnosis, so seek medical care right away. You usually need intravenous (given through a vein) antibiotics and close monitoring.
Gastrointestinal perforations can be fatal. Do not try to care for this condition at home. Always seek immediate medical care if you think you have a gastrointestinal perforation.
Most people receive antibiotics, either with or without surgery, to treat gastrointestinal perforation. These medications help prevent infections that can occur from perforation. You may have to take these medications for several weeks. Take the full course of medicine, and don’t stop taking your antibiotics unless your provider tells you to do so.
You might not be able to prevent gastrointestinal perforation altogether. But you can decrease your risk if you:
A full recovery after gastrointestinal perforation surgery can take several weeks. Many people who have successful treatment recover completely. See your provider for follow-up care.
It’s possible to have a gastrointestinal perforation more than once, but this is uncommon. See your provider regularly to manage health conditions and help lower your risk of a future perforation.
Because a gastrointestinal perforation can be life-threatening, seek emergency care if you notice any of its symptoms. Don’t wait to see if it goes away on its own.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Gastrointestinal perforation is a serious condition that requires immediate medical care. However, with today’s surgical techniques and medications, many people make a full recovery. It’s important to know the signs of a gastrointestinal perforation and your risk factors. With this knowledge, you can take an active role in your health and improve your chances of successful treatment.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/11/2022.
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