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Gas & Flatulence

What is flatulence?

Commonly known as farting, passing wind, or having gas, flatulence is a medical term for releasing gas from the digestive system through the anus. It occurs when gas collects inside the digestive system, and is a normal process.

Gas collects in two main ways. Swallowing air while you eat or drink can cause oxygen and nitrogen to collect in the digestive tract. Second, as you digest food, digestive gases such as hydrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide collect. Either method can cause flatulence.

What causes flatulence?

Flatulence is very common. We all accumulate gas in our digestive system. The Mayo Clinic estimates that most people pass gas about 10 times a day. If you pass wind more frequently than this on a regular basis, you could have excessive flatulence, which has a number of causes.

Swallowing air

It’s natural to swallow air throughout the day, normally during eating and drinking. Typically, you’ll only swallow a small amount of air. If you frequently swallow more air, you may find that you experience excessive flatulence. It may also cause burping.

Reasons that you may swallow more air than normal include chewing gum, smoking, sucking on objects such as pen tops, drinking carbonated drinks, and eating too quickly.

Dietary choices

Your dietary choices could lead to excessive flatulence. Some foods that increase gas include:

  • beans
  • cabbage
  • broccoli
  • raisins
  • lentils
  • prunes
  • apples
  • foods high in fructose or sorbitol, such as fruit juices

These foods can take a long time to digest, leading to the unpleasant smell associated with flatulence. Also, some foods the body can’t fully absorb. This means that they pass from the intestines to the colon without being completely digested first. The colon contains a large amount of bacteria that then break down the food, releasing gases as they do so. The buildup of this gas causes flatulence.

Excessive flatulence causes and complications

If your diet doesn’t contain a large amount of carbohydrates or sugars, and you don’t swallow excessive air, your excessive flatulence may be due to a medical condition. The Mayo Clinic defines excessive flatulence as more than 20 times per day.

Potential conditions underlying flatulence range from temporary conditions to digestive problems. Some of these conditions include:

What are treatment options and home remedies for flatulence?

There are a number of ways to treat flatulence, depending on the cause of the problem. To treat flatulence at home, try the following:

Look at your diet. If it contains a large amount of carbohydrates that are difficult to digest, try to replace them. Carbohydrates that are easier to digest, such as potatoes, rice, and bananas, are good substitutes.

Keep a food diary. This will help you can identify any triggers. After you identify some foods that cause you excessive flatulence, you can learn to avoid them or to eat less of them.

Eat less more. Try to eat around five to six small meals a day instead of three larger ones to help your digestive process.

Chew properly. Avoid doing anything that may increase the amount of air that you swallow. This includes making sure that you are chewing your food properly, and avoiding chewing gum or smoking.

Exercise. Some people find that exercising helps to promote digestion and can prevent flatulence.

Try over-the-counter medications. These include charcoal tablets that absorb gas through the digestive system, antacids, dietary supplements such as alpha-galactosidase (Beano). It's important to note that these medications will only temporarily provide relief. 

When to see your doctor for flatulence

If you have unexplained flatulence, or if you suffer from the following symptoms along with flatulence, you should see your doctor.

  • swollen abdomen
  • abdominal pain
  • gas is persistent and severe
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • unintentional weight loss
  • heartburn
  • blood in stool

Diagnosing flatulence

Your doctor will discuss your symptoms with you, including when the problem started, and if there are any apparent triggers. They will also do a physical examination.

A blood test may be necessary to ensure that your body isn’t fighting an infection, to identify any possible food intolerances, and to make sure there is not another medical condition causing your flatulence.

Your doctor will likely advise you to follow the steps above, including keeping a food diary and changing your eating habits. Depending on the cause, you may also benefit from seeing a dietician.

In addition, you may receive medication for a specific condition. If your doctor has been able to identify an underlying condition, you will receive treatment for that. You may also have to undergo further tests to get a conclusive diagnosis for your excessive flatulence.

Preventing flatulence

According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, some foods that are less likely to cause gas include:

  • meat, poultry, and fish
  • eggs
  • vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, and okra
  • fruits such as cantaloupe, grapes, berries, cherries, avocado, and olives
  • carbohydrates such as gluten-free bread, rice bread, and rice

As we all react to certain foods differently, sometimes a diet change is needed to prevent flatulence.

Long-term outlook of flatulence

There are no long-term consequences for not treating flatulence. If the flatulence is due to a food intolerance or digestive issue, the problem may get worse. Other symptoms may also develop.

In some cases, prolonged excessive flatulence can lead to other issues, such as social discomfort and changes in eating habits. If it affects your lifestyle a lot, it may also affect your mood. It’s important to maintain a healthy diet and to see your doctor if the problem begins to negatively affect your life.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kati Blake
Medically reviewed on: Mar 02, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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