A swollen abdomen occurs when your stomach area is larger than normal. This is sometimes called a distended abdomen or swollen belly. A swollen abdomen has a number of potential causes, and it is a common occurrence.
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 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.
Your abdomen could be swollen for a number of different reasons, ranging from eating too much to pregnancy. Only your doctor will be able to determine the exact cause of your swollen abdomen.
Most Common Causes
Some of the most common causes of abdominal swelling include overeating and gas. Swallowing air as part of a nervous habit or eating foods that are high in fiber can lead to gas production. If this gas isn’t released, it can lead to abdominal swelling. There are a few medical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance, that commonly cause abdominal swelling as well.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
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 National Institutes of Health, about one in every six Americans has symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (NIH, 2011).
Lactose intolerance is a condition that occurs when your body is unable to digest lactose, a sugar that is found in dairy products. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include abdominal bloating and gas, which 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 National Center for Biotechnology Information, lactose intolerance is fairly uncommon in those of European descent. If you are of Asian, African, or Native American descent, your chances of being lactose intolerant are higher (NCBI, 2012).
Ascites is a condition that occurs when fluid builds up inside your abdomen. This build up is usually caused by 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.
Less Common Causes
Your swollen abdomen could be caused by a number of other, less common symptoms. These include:
- a blockage in your intestine
- an ovarian cyst
- weight gain
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 eat 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 food time to be processed by your stomach.
If your abdomen is swollen because of gas, try avoiding foods that are known to cause gas, such as beans and cruciferous vegetables like 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 distention-causing fluid. In rare cases, an infection can develop in your ascitic fluid. If this happens, you’ll need to undergo rigorous treatment with antibiotics.
When it comes to IBS and lactose intolerance, there is not much medical treatment available to relieve your swollen abdomen.