Ascites is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the abdomen.
Rapidly developing (acute) ascites can occur as a complication of trauma, perforated ulcer, appendicitis, or inflammation of the colon or other tube-shaped organ (diverticulitis). This condition can also develop when intestinal fluids, bile, pancreatic juices, or bacteria invade or inflame the smooth, transparent membrane that lines the inside of the abdomen (peritoneum). However, ascites is more often associated with liver disease and other long-lasting (chronic) conditions.
Types of ascites
Cirrhosis, which is responsible for 80% of all instances of ascites in the United States, triggers a series of disease-producing changes that weaken the kidney's ability to excrete sodium in the urine.
Pancreatic ascites develops when a cyst that has thick, fibrous walls (pseudocyst) bursts and permits pancreatic juices to enter the abdominal cavity.
Chylous ascites has a milky appearance caused by lymph that has leaked into the abdominal cavity. Although chylous ascites is sometimes caused by trauma, abdominal surgery, tuberculosis, or another peritoneal infection, it is usually a symptom of lymphoma or some other cancer.
Cancer causes 10% of all instances of ascites in the United States. It is most commonly a consequence of disease that originates in the peritoneum (peritoneal carcinomatosis) or of cancer that spreads (metastasizes) from another part of the body.
Endocrine and renal ascites are rare disorders. Endocrine ascites, sometimes a symptom of an endocrine system disorder, also affects women who are taking fertility drugs. Renal ascites develops when blood levels of albumin dip below normal. Albumin is the major protein
in blood plasma. It functions to keep fluid inside the blood vessels.
The two most important factors in the production of ascites due to chronic liver disease are:
- Low levels of albumin in the blood that cause a change in the pressure necessary to prevent fluid exchange (osmotic pressure). This change in pressure allows fluid to seep out of the blood vessels.
- An increase in the pressure within the branches of the portal vein that run through liver (portal hypertension). Portal hypertension is caused by the scarring that occurs in cirrhosis. Blood that cannot flow through the liver because of the increased pressure leaks into the abdomen and causes ascites.
Other conditions that contribute to ascites development include:
- heart or kidney failure
- inflammation and fibrous hardening of the sac that contains the heart (constrictive pericarditis)
Persons who have systemic lupus erythematosus but do not have liver disease or portal hypertension occasionally develop ascites. Depressed thyroid activity sometimes causes pronounced ascites, but inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) rarely causes significant accumulations of fluid.
Small amounts of fluid in the abdomen do not usually produce symptoms. Massive accumulations may cause:
- rapid weight gain
- abdominal discomfort and distention
- shortness of breath
- swollen ankles
Skin stretches tightly across an abdomen that contains large amounts of fluid. The navel bulges or lies flat, and the fluid makes a dull sound when the doctor taps the abdomen. Ascitic fluid may cause the flanks to bulge.
Physical examination generally enables doctors to distinguish ascites from pregnancy, intestinal gas, obesity, or ovarian tumors. Ultrasound or computed tomography scans (CT) can detect even small amounts of fluid. Laboratory analysis of fluid extracted by inserting a needle through the abdominal wall (diagnostic paracentesis) can help identify the cause of the accumulation.
Reclining minimizes the amount of salt the kidneys absorb, so treatment generally starts with bed rest and a low-salt diet. Urine-producing drugs (diuretics) may be prescribed if initial treatment is ineffective. The weight and urinary output of patients using diuretics must be carefully monitored for signs of :
- hypovolemia (massive loss of blood or fluid)
- azotemia (abnormally high blood levels of nitrogen-bearing materials)
- potassium imbalance
- high sodium concentration. If the patient consumes more salt than the kidneys excrete, increased doses of diuretics should be prescribed
Moderate-to-severe accumulations of fluid are treated by draining large amounts of fluid (large-volume paracentesis) from the patient's abdomen. This procedure is safer than diuretic therapy. It causes fewer complications and requires a shorter hospital stay.
Large-volume paracentesis is also the preferred treatment for massive ascites. Diuretics are sometimes
Dietary alterations, focused on reducing salt intake, should be a part of the treatment. In less severe cases, herbal diuretics like dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) can help eliminate excess fluid and provide potassium. Potassium-rich foods like low-fat yogurt, mackerel, cantaloupe, and baked potatoes help balance excess sodium intake.
The prognosis depends upon the condition that is causing the ascites. Carcinomatous ascites has a very bad prognosis. However, salt restriction and diuretics can control ascites caused by liver disease in many cases.
Therapy should also be directed towards the underlying disease that produces the ascites. Cirrhosis should be treated by abstinence from alcohol and appropriate diet. The new interferon agents maybe helpful in treating chronic hepatitis.
Modifying or restricting use of salt can prevent most cases of recurrent ascites.
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Berkow, Robert, ed. The Merck Manual of Medical Information. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1997.
New Choices in Natural Healing. Ed. Bill Gottlieb, et al. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1995.
Jaffe, D. L., R. T. Chung, and L. S. Friedman. "Management of portal hypertension and its complications." The Medical Clinics of North America 80 (1996): 1021-34.
American Liver Foundation. 1425 Pompton Ave., Cedar Grove, NJ 07009. (800) 223-0179. <http://www.liverfoundation.org>.
"Hepatic and Liver Disorders." The Meck Page. 20 Apr. 1998. <http://www.merck.com>.
Paracentesis—A procedure in which fluid is drained from a body cavity by means of a catheter placed through an incision in the skin.
Systemic lupus erythematosus—An inflammatory disease that affects many body systems, including the skin, blood vessels, kidneys, and nervous system. It is characterized, in part, by arthritis, skin rash, weakness, and fatigue.
Ultrasonography—A test using sound waves to measure blood flow. Gel is applied to a hand-held transducer that is pressed against the patient's body. Images are displayed on a monitor.