Abdominal Bloating: When to Worry

For some it's a matter of aesthetics and for others, it affects their quality of life. Let's see the causes of abdominal bloating and when it should be a concern.
Abdominal Bloating: When to Worry
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Abdominal bloating is common. Its consequences aren’t usually serious, but it does affect quality of life quite significantly. In fact, more than half of those who suffer from it alter their routine.

But when should it be a concern? There are as many interpretations of the seriousness of abdominal bloating as there are sufferers. For some, it’s something temporary and unimportant, and for others, it’s a daily complication. In the following article, we’ll fill you in on the details.

Previous knowledge of the discomfort

Abdominal bloating, abdominal distension or belly bloating are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, they don’t mean the same thing.

Medicine distinguishes between bloating and distension. The former is the sensation a person has, the subjective feeling. On the other hand, abdominal distention is the objective perception of an increase in the size of the abdomen that can be verified in a physical examination.

We also want to make it clear that it’s not obesity or accumulation of fatty tissue in the belly. Abdominal bloating affects overweight and thin people alike.

According to data published in 2013 by the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, researchers estimate that up to one third of the population has had or has the symptom. The most affected are women, to a greater extent than men.

Causes of abdominal bloating

As Dr. Edith Pérez de Arce points out, perhaps the most frequent cause of abdominal bloating is excessive food. It’s a benign and temporary cause, without major complications.

A man with abdominal bloating.
Irritable colon, gas accumulation and food intolerances are common causes of abdominal bloating.

However, there are also other causes of varying severity:

  • Flatulence due to the accumulation of intestinal gas with difficulty in expelling it.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome: Those who suffer from this issue suffer from an altered intestinal process.
  • Fluid in the abdominal cavity: this is a serious cause and, therefore, must be treated immediately.
  • Pregnancy: During pregnancy, the intestinal transit process may also alter and gas production may increase.
  • Premenstrual syndrome includes a set of symptoms that some women suffer from before menstruation. Among them is abdominal bloating. Although it’s not a serious clinical condition, it is quite uncomfortable.
  • Lactose intolerance: Since the intestine isn’t able to digest lactose properly, fermentation in the digestive tract increases.

Keep reading: How to Make 5 Teas for Stomach Gases

When to be concerned

Abdominal swelling is almost always a benign process. It lasts a few hours and goes away without the person having to do anything in particular. However, there are situations that hide a more serious process.

One of the measures for concern is that the swelling persists. In benign cases, the discomfort shouldn’t last for more than 24 hours. In life-threatening cases, the swelling increases in intensity. Moreover, in chronic conditions (such as dyspepsia), an article published in 2014 by the Revista de Ciencias Médicas de Pinar del Río explains that 12 weeks is taken as a limiting measure.

A woman holding her stomach.
In most cases, abdominal swelling is due to benign causes. However, you must be aware of the symptoms that may alert any complication.

These 12 weeks also apply to conditions such as celiac disease or malabsorption syndromes. Of course, these conditions are accompanied by diarrhea and major digestive changes. Gastroenteritis also has accompanying symptoms that go hand in hand with bloating. In these cases there may be diarrhea, vomiting and even fever.

You should be concerned if there’s intense pain, as doctors must rule out problems such as cirrhosis (late stage of liver scarring), neoplasms (abnormal mass or tumor in the tissue), clots and thrombi. In this sense, the history and the presence of risk factors can guide the professional in the search for a diagnosis.

How to reduce abdominal bloating

Since the main cause of abdominal bloating is excessive, copious or poorly carried out eating, there are certain measures that can be taken to reduce it. Among these, the American College of Gastroenterology advises the following:

  • Increased fiber in diet: fruits and vegetables improve intestinal transit because of their fiber component. In cases where constipation is the cause of abdominal bloating, it’s advisable to increase consumption.
  • Physical activity: sports practice improves the functioning of the digestive tract, helping to eliminate gas.
  • Hydration: consuming the exact amount of water required by the body every day keeps the intestinal mucous membranes hydrated. It’s also important to drink non-carbonated water.
  • Avoid chewing gum: excessive chewing can cause gas in the digestive tract.
  • Eat slowly: large meals eaten quickly also alter the movement of the digestive tract. Doctors recommend that we eat slowly and take our time with each bite.

Visit your doctor regularly to monitor swelling

It’s important to ask a professional if you have questions about the characteristics of abdominal swelling. In this regard, we don’t recommend assuming that it’s something usual or normal.

If you have doubts because the symptom seems to last longer than expected or is accompanied by other signs, make an appointment with your doctor. In the meantime, you can apply the dietary measures we have suggested to alleviate the uncomfortable sensation.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Azpiroz F . Intestinal gas . In: Feldman M , Friedman LS , Brand LJ (eds). Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, Management , 10th edn. Elsevier : Philadelphia, USA , 2015 , pp 242 – 50-
  • Sebastián Domingo, Juan J. Los nuevos criterios de Roma (IV) de los trastornos funcionales digestivos en la práctica clínica. No. ART-2017-98994. 2017.
  • Longstreth GF , Th ompson WG , Chey WD et al. Functional bowel disorders . Gastroenterology 2006 ; 130 : 1480 – 91.
  • Tomé, A. Pardillos, and J. Alcedo González. “Protocolo diagnóstico del meteorismo abdominal.” Medicine-Programa de Formación Médica Continuada Acreditado 12.4 (2016): 203-206.
  • Dr. Larry Szarka & Dr. Michael Levitt. Eructos, distensión abdominal y flatulencia. American College of Gastroenterology 6400 Goldsboro Rd, Bethesda, MD 20817.
  • Morera Negre, Marta María, & Rodríguez López, Medardo. (2014). Dispepsia funcional: caracterización clínico epidemiológica y endoscópica. Revista de Ciencias Médicas de Pinar del Río18(5), 733-742. Recuperado en 12 de julio de 2020, de http://scielo.sld.cu/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1561-31942014000500003&lng=es&tlng=pt.
  • Edith Pérez de Arce O (2017). Functional abdominal bloating/ distension. A practical approach. Gastroenterol latinoam 2017; Vol 28, Supl Nº 1: S 35- S 39. https://gastrolat.org/DOI/PDF/10.0716/gastrolat2017s100007.pdf.
  • Seo AY, Kim N, , Oh DH.  Abdominal Bloating: Pathophysiology and Treatment.  J Neurogastroenterol Motil 2013;19:433-453.  https://doi.org/10.5056/jnm.2013.19.4.433

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.