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Excessive Gas

Aria Health Center for Gynecology & Women's Health

The digestive system has a certain amount of gas in it at all times, and some of that gas to be passed every day. The gas comes from air swallowed during eating or drinking, or as a result of the breakdown of foods by bacteria in the intestines. The body eliminates gas from the gastrointestinal tract through burping or passing the gas through the rectum.

Some conditions cause excessive amounts of gas, a circumstance that can be uncomfortable and embarrassing but does not pose a medical risk.  Excessive gas can often be addressed through dietary changes or medical treatment.


Causes/risk factors

Eating or drinking too rapidly is a common cause of swallowed air. In addition, the normal bacteria that breakdown food, primarily in the large intestine or colon, are especially active in some people due to diet or other causes. Certain food, especially those with certain sugars can exacerbate this function.

Poor digestion of food in the small intestine that causes more undigested food to enter the colon is also a cause of additional gas. For a smaller number of people, obstructions of various types in the GI tract can cause bloating due to excessive gas trapped in the intestine. Intestinal hypersensitivities can also have this effect.


Signs & symptoms

Common symptoms of excessive gas include unusual amounts of:

  • belching, which occurs when people swallow air but release it before it enters the stomach;
  • flatulence, which occurs when gas passes from the colon and out through the rectum (a normal event one- to two-dozen times per day);
  • abdominal bloating, which can be due to a number of digesting conditions;
  • abdominal pain and discomfort, normally in the colon.

Diagnosis

Your physician will want to rule out more serious disorders as a cause of the excessive gas. Conditions that can contribute to this problem include peptic ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. In addition to taking a medical history and performing a physical examination, physicians may request the following steps or diagnostic procedures in order to diagnose excessive gas:

  • dietary alterations;
  • plain-film x-rays;
  • ultrasound;
  • gastric emptying study;
  • colonoscopy;
  • sigmoidoscopy;
  • barium, upper-GI x-ray (upper GI series or barium swallow);
  • digestion/absorption tests;
  • or breath test (to detect the bacteria).


Treatment

Steps to prevent excessive gas in the digestive tract depend on its cause. But commonly they can include:

  • long-term changes in diet;
  • medications, including those specifically designed to absorb excess gas, to promote muscle activity of the stomach or small intestine, or to reduce bacterial levels;
  • changes in eating habits, sometimes including efforts to improve chewing and swallowing;
  • or surgery to address obstructions (Surgeons in Aria's Division of General Surgery and Section on Colorectal Surgery are experts in providing surgery for the digestive track.)