Bloating: Causes, Remedies and Prevention
Bloating can result from conditions affecting the digestive tract, also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. A common condition is an excess of gas in the stomach or intestines from foods you eat. Constipation can cause bloating, as well as other GI disorders.
This article looks at bloating symptoms that occur with bloating, what causes bloating, and treatments to relieve bloating.
Bloating is a feeling of fullness, pressure, or tightness in your stomach or abdomen. You may or may not have visible distension of your stomach area. It can feel and look like there is an inflated balloon inside your abdomen.
Stomach bloating is a common condition. Many people experience it from time to time. Bloating can range from mildly uncomfortable to painful. It can occur occasionally or be a recurrent problem. It can be cyclical when it happens with hormonal changes around menstruation.
Often, bloating is due to excess gas or occasional constipation. Gas is a natural product of digestion. Most of it comes from bacteria that release it when they ferment carbohydrates. Certain foods are more likely to produce gas and bloating. Having too much gas on a regular basis can be a sign of digestive problems. When gas is the problem, bloating causes other symptoms, such as belching and flatulence.
If constipation is responsible, you may have fewer bowel movements or not feel empty after having a bowel movement. Bloating is also a common experience in people with functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs). This includes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), functional dyspepsia, and chronic constipation.
Bloating is usually temporary and will resolve on its own. Treating the underlying cause can help provide relief for bloating. See your doctor if bloating lasts for more than a week, gets progressively worse, or is constant and painful.
Bloating can occur with other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition. Other symptoms often affect the GI tract but may involve other body systems.
Digestive-related symptoms that may occur along with bloating
Bloating may occur with other symptoms of the digestive system including:
- bad breath
- change in bowel habits
- nausea with or without vomiting
Other symptoms that may occur along with bloating
Bloating may accompany symptoms that relate to other body systems. Bloating is particularly common with menstrual periods. Other symptoms that may occur with bloating at this time include:
Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition
Bloating is rarely a sign of a medical emergency. However, it may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition. Seek prompt medical care for serious symptoms including:
- persistent, extreme, or chronic nausea with vomiting or diarrhea
- severe abdominal pain
- signs of bleeding, including:
- dark stool
- bleeding from the rectum
- vomiting blood or coffee ground-like material
- weight loss, loss of appetite, or feeling full quickly
Bloating is most commonly the result of a digestive issue. Excess gas and occasional constipation are two of the top ones. Excess gas in the stomach is usually due to swallowing air or consuming certain foods or drinks, such as carbonated beverages. You usually expel stomach gas by belching.
Intestinal gas is mostly the result of bacteria fermenting food during digestion. You expel this gas by passing it, commonly called “farting.” Excess gas can cause bloating when it does not move out of the GI tract quickly enough. You can have excess gas from eating foods high in carbohydrates, fiber, and sugars.
Constipation can cause bloating because it slows the movement of intestinal contents. This includes undigested food, stool, and gas. As contents build, there is less room in the abdomen. This can result in distention and fullness.
Digestive causes of bloating
Bloating may arise from problems in the GI tract, including:
- carbohydrate malabsorption, which happens when the GI tract does not properly absorb sugars and starchy foods, causing gas buildup
- constipation and bowel obstructions
- excess gas
- food intolerances, including lactose intolerance
- gastritis or peptic ulcer disease
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis
- IBS and other FGIDs
- Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection
- motility disorders, including gastroparesis
- small intestine bacterial overgrowth
Hormonal causes of bloating
Bloating that occurs on and off is most likely due to digestive problems. However, bloating may be due to hormonal changes on a cyclical basis with monthly periods. Female hormones increase the volume of the uterus during the menstrual cycle.
Serious or life threatening causes of bloating
- ascites due to liver, kidney or heart failure
- cancer, including ovarian, uterine, colon, stomach, intestinal and pancreatic cancers
- celiac disease
- pancreatic insufficiency, which occurs when the pancreas does not make enough digestive enzymes
Bloating is usually not a serious problem and does not require medical care. However, there are times when seeing a doctor is the safest option. Make an appointment with your doctor if you have:
- symptoms that do not go away within a week
- symptoms that are constant and uncomfortable
- symptoms that get progressively worse
- new symptoms that develop after age 55
- pain or difficulty swallowing
- rectal pain
- additional symptoms of GI or ovarian cancer, with a family history of cancer
Contact a doctor promptly or go to your nearest emergency room for bloating when you:
- are vomiting blood or coffee ground-like material
- have bloody or dark stool
- have a fever, severe abdominal pain, or persistent diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
- feel full too quickly, have a decreased appetite, or have unintended weight loss
To diagnose the cause of bloating, your doctor will take your medical history, perform an exam, and possibly order testing. Questions your doctor may ask include:
- How long have you felt bloated?
- How severe is the bloating?
- Is the bloating constant or does it come and go?
- How often do you feel bloated?
- Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, cramping, or pain?
- When do your symptoms occur?
- What, if anything, seems to make your symptoms better or worse?
- Have you changed your diet recently?
- What other medical conditions do you have?
- What medications do you take?
The physical exam will likely focus on your abdomen. Your doctor may feel your abdomen and listen to it with a stethoscope. This helps your doctor understand if your GI tract is functioning normally.
When feeling your abdomen, your doctor may tap in places and ask you if you feel tenderness or pain.
There is no test for bloating. If bloating is a symptom of a possible digestive disorder, your doctor may order testing including:
- Abdominal imaging exams: These exams include ultrasound, CT scan, barium swallow, barium enema, and upper GI series involving X-rays of the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine.
- Anorectal manometry: This test checks the function of the rectum and anus by measuring pressure and nerve response for people experiencing constipation or fecal incontinence.
- Blood tests: Blood tests can check for digestive conditions including celiac disease, IBD, and stomach ulcers.
- Breath test: A breath test can find indicators of bacteria overgrowth, lactose intolerance, or fructose malabsorption.
- Endoscopy: This nonsurgical procedure examines the inside of the upper GI tract.
- Colonoscopy: This nonsurgical procedure examines the inside of the colon.
- Sigmoidoscopy: This nonsurgical procedure examines the inside of the rectum and the lower large instestines.
- Gastric emptying test: This test measures how quickly food moves out of the stomach and into the small intestine.
- Thyroid stimulating hormone: This blood test checks for underactive thyroid, known to cause bloating due to constipation.
- Stool analysis: This includes fecal occult blood test, which checks for blood in the stool and H. plyori infection.
It is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and a healthcare professional is unable to determine a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.
Since bloating is a symptom, treating it depends on the underlying cause. If your doctor diagnoses a digestive disorder, prescription medication may be necessary. Diet and other lifestyle changes can help treat bloating.
Medications for bloating
You can usually manage bloating with over-the-counter treatments. Potential treatments include:
- Alpha-galactosidase: These enzymes (Beano, BeanAssist, Gas-Zyme, others) break down gas-producing sugars and carbohydrates in beans, grains, and vegetables. Typicallly, you take it right before eating.
- Antacids: Antacids reduce stomach acid and can relieve stomach inflammation and irritation.
- Fiber supplements: Fiber supplements can relieve constipation and help you have more regular bowel movements. Add fiber supplements gradually and take them with plenty of water.
- Probiotics: Probiotics supplement and balance beneficial gut bacteria. It can take a few weeks to see the full effect.
- Simethicone: Simethicone (Gas-X, Mylanta Gas, others) has antifoaming properties. It reduces the surface tension of gas bubbles to help them break easier. This relieves gas by allowing it to pass through the GI tract.
Home remedies, diet, and eating habits for bloating
Lifestyle changes can help relieve and prevent bloating. As you try bloating remedies, keep a symptom diary so you can see which changes make a difference.
One of the most important steps is to evaluate is your diet and eating habits. Eating a low FODMAP diet can be helpful for a variety of digestive problems, including bloating.
FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, and mono-saccharides and polyols. They are short-chain carbohydrates that are poorly digestible and poorly absorbable. Instead, they ferment and produce gas.
Examples of foods with high FODMAPs include fruits, vegetables, wheat and rye products, dairy, and certain sweeteners.
Experts recommend limiting, avoiding, or eating smaller portions of the following:
- artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes such as sorbitol
- carbonated beverages, which contain gases
- dairy that contains lactose, although many lactose-free alternatives can still provide the benefits of dairy products
- fatty or fried foods, which can cause bloating and discomfort
- high fiber foods, such as beans, cruciferous vegetables, onions, prunes, and whole grains.
Talk with your doctor before eliminating high fiber foods. Your doctor may recommend eliminating high fiber foods for two weeks and then gradually adding them back in your diet, one at a time, to identify if any are causing gas.
Other habits may help prevent constipation and bloating that can come with it. These include:
- drinking plenty of water throughout the day and with your meals
- exercising regularly to help reduce the risk of constipation
- taking a 10–15 minute walk after eating to aid digestion
Things you can do to avoid swallowing air that can cause gas include:
- avoiding gulping liquids
- avoiding drinking through a straw
- eating slowly and chewing food thoroughly
- quitting smoking
- stopping eating before you feel full to avoid overeating
Alternative treatments for bloating
Several alternative treatments may help relieve and prevent bloating including:
- Herbal teas such as chamomile, fennel, ginger, peppermint, and turmeric may aid in digestion.
- Mind-body practices may help control stress and anxiety, which can affect digestion.
- Peppermint oil can act as a natural antispasmodic to relax digestive muscles.
In general, bloating is a harmless symptom that usually has no complications. However, some of the conditions that can cause bloating may have serious complications if left untreated.
Contact your doctor if bloating becomes a frequent problem or if other symptoms occur with it.
Bloating is a common condition that impacts many people. It is often a result of digestive upset or overeating. Lifestyle changes can help reduce bloating and relieve it.