Abdominal bloating can be alarming, particularly when it is very painful. Some people notice that their belly looks swollen or misshapen, or they may experience sharp abdominal pain. Yet in many cases, the cause may be something as simple as indigestion or too much gas building up in the stomach and bowels.
Bloating is rarely a cause for concern if it:
- is associated with food or eating
- does not get worse with time
- goes away within a day or two
In this article, we look at the causes of abdominal bloating, how to treat it, and when to see a doctor.
Abdominal bloating is not unusual. Many people experience the same type of bloating again and again. Bloating that follows a predictable pattern is usually nothing to worry about.
When the pattern changes or the bloating becomes worse than normal, it may be because of one of the following conditions:
A buildup of gas in the stomach and intestines is among the most common causes of bloating. Other possible symptoms include:
- excessive belching
- excessive flatulence
- feeling an intense urge to have a bowel movement
- feeling nauseous
Bloating caused by gas ranges from mild discomfort to intense pain. Some people describe feeling as if there is something trapped inside their stomach.
Gas can be caused by:
- certain foods, including cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage
- a stomach infection
- chronic illnesses, such as Crohn’s disease
- a range of other conditions
In most cases, gas goes away on its own after a few hours.
Indigestion, sometimes called dyspepsia, is discomfort or pain in the stomach. Most people experience brief episodes of indigestion from time to time.
It is often caused by:
- eating too much
- excessive alcohol
- medications that irritate the stomach, such as ibuprofen
- a minor stomach infection
Frequent indigestion that does not appear to be associated with food or other apparent causes could be a sign of something more serious. Possible causes include a stomach ulcer, cancer, or liver failure.
Stomach infections can cause gas, which may also be accompanied by:
- stomach pain
These are often due to bacteria such as Escherichia coli or Helicobacter pylori, or a viral infection such as norovirus or rotavirus.
Stomach infections usually go away on their own after a few days. However, some people may become severely dehydrated or continue to get worse over several days. These individuals should see a doctor if the bloating coincides with:
- bloody stool
- severe and frequent vomiting
Bloating can usually be safely treated at home. Some options that may help include:
- over-the-counter medications, including antacids or bismuth salicylate (Pepto-Bismol)
- applying a heat pad to the stomach
- drinking water
- eating peppermint
- drinking carbonated water
- taking a laxative to relieve constipation
Keeping a food diary to monitor bloating can also be useful. This can help with diagnosing food intolerances and making healthy lifestyle changes. Many people find that simply avoiding certain foods can prevent bloating and other gastrointestinal health issues.
When to see a doctor
Rarely, bloating could be a sign of something more serious. A person should see a doctor for bloating associated with:
- intense pain
- a fever
- vomiting lasts longer than 24 hours, or if it is impossible to keep any food down
- bloody stools
- a physical injury, such as a punch to the stomach or a car accident
- rapid swelling of the abdomen or anywhere else in the body
- liver or kidney failure
Abdominal bloating can be disconcerting and painful. For most people, the cause can be treated at home and will be something simple. A person should speak to a doctor if the symptoms get worse or do not go away after a few days.
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