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A swollen abdomen occurs when your stomach area is larger than normal. This is sometimes known as a distended abdomen or swollen belly. A swollen abdomen is often uncomfortable or even painful. A swollen abdomen has a number of potential causes. It’s a common occurrence.
Your abdomen could be swollen for a number of different reasons. These range from eating too much to pregnancy. Only your doctor will be able to determine the exact cause of your swollen abdomen.
Some of the most common causes of abdominal swelling include overeating and gas. Swallowing air as part of a nervous habit or from eating foods that are high in fiber can lead to gas production. If you don’t release this gas, it can lead to abdominal swelling.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder that causes cramping and pain in your stomach, among other symptoms. IBS can also cause bloating and gas, which could cause you to have a distended abdomen. According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Diseases, about 1 in every 10 people have symptoms of IBS.
Lactose intolerance is a condition that occurs when your body is unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include abdominal bloating and gas. These symptoms can cause your abdomen to swell. If you experience a swollen abdomen within two hours of ingesting dairy, you might be lactose intolerant. According to the Mayo Clinic, lactose intolerance is most common in people of African, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian descent.
Ascites is a condition that occurs when fluid builds up inside your abdomen. This buildup is usually due to problems with your liver, such as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis occurs when your liver becomes extremely scarred. When ascites first develops, you probably won’t notice any symptoms. As the fluid accumulates over time, you’ll start to notice your abdomen becoming more and more swollen. Ascites can cause you discomfort.
Your swollen abdomen could be caused by a number of other less common symptoms. For example, gallstones are hard masses that can build up in your gallbladder. Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. Weight gain may also cause swelling of the abdomen, as can a blockage in your intestine. An ovarian cyst may also lead to a swollen abdomen.
Depending upon the cause of your swollen abdomen, you might be able to treat your symptoms easily at home. If your abdomen is swollen because you ate too much, simply waiting for your food to digest could solve your problem. Eating smaller meals can help prevent this problem in the future. Also, consider eating more slowly to give your stomach time to process your food.
If your abdomen is swollen because of gas, try avoiding foods that are known to cause gas. Some of these foods are beans and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage. Avoid drinking carbonated drinks and drinking out of a straw. Eating slowly can also help prevent you from swallowing air, which leads to gas.
Avoiding dairy products can help relieve abdominal swelling caused by lactose intolerance. In the case of IBS, decreasing your stress levels and raising your fiber intake have been shown to help relieve symptoms. If you have ascites, bed rest and reducing your sodium intake can help your body get rid of the excess fluid.
If rest and lowering the amount of sodium in your diet don’t work to relieve symptoms, your doctor might suggest using diuretics. Diuretics will help your kidneys remove more of the fluid causing the swelling. In rare cases, an infection can develop in your ascitic fluid. If this happens, you’ll need to undergo rigorous treatment with antibiotics.
There isn’t much medical treatment available to relieve a swollen abdomen due to IBS and lactose intolerance.
Ascites is typically a side effect of another serious issue in the body, such as cirrhosis. You should talk to your doctor about a plan of care. In addition to treating the causing ailment, you may need to undergo removal of the fluid. The fluid removal procedure, or paracentesis, varies in duration since it depends on how much fluid needs to be removed.
It’s unlikely that your swollen abdomen is the result of any serious illness, but there are a few things you should look out for. Call your doctor if your abdomen is getting bigger, or if you have other symptoms that accompany the swelling, such as fever or nausea. Seek medical care if you have extreme diarrhea or blood in your stool. If you find that you’re unable to eat or drink for more than eight hours, tell your doctor.
Written by: Carmella Wint
Medically reviewed on: Feb 25, 2016: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI
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