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Bloating and abdominal distension are very common complaints among adults. While bloating is an uncomfortable feeling that the stomach or the abdomen is full, tight, or larger than normal, abdominal distension is a more visible sign that shows an enlargement or widening of the abdomen. When you feel bloated, you may feel like your stomach is full, which makes you uncomfortable. However, when your abdomen is distended, your abdominal girth is larger than usual, and it may be more difficult to put on your usual clothes, such as your pants. There is a distinction between the two, because bloating is often a functional disorder, while abdominal distension may be caused by an organic disorder or disease. However, both may occur at the same time.

What Causes Bloating?

Bloating is a very common experience, but what causes it is poorly understood. Some people feel bloated after eating a meal, and it may be caused by poor gastric motility. Some people are constipated, and they feel bloated. Others have a feeling of tightness and swelling in the abdomen, which is sometimes relieved by burping, belching or farting (passing flatus). This may be due to eating too much gas-forming foods, presence of gas-forming bacteria in the intestines, taking some medicines, lactose intolerance, or just swallowing too much air. In women, hormonal changes are often accompanied by the feeling of bloatedness. Some conditions are also characterized by symptoms of bloating, including diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn's disease.

What Causes Abdominal Distension?

Enlargement of the abdomen or abdominal distension may be caused by the increasing volume of gas, fluid or solid tissues in the abdomen. Sometimes distension comes and goes (intermittent), and the cause may be due to intestinal gas, which may be due to a functional or physical obstruction. However, if the distension is continuous or progressive, it may be due to the presence of fluid, fat, tumors, or enlarged organs in the abdomen. One may feel bloated when the abdomen is distended.

When to Consult a Doctor

Experiencing a feeling of tightness or fullness in the abdomen once in a while is normal for most people but if is accompanied by abdominal distension, it may be time to consult a doctor. Other symptoms that must prompt you to see a doctor include:

  • Prolonged or severe abdominal pain

  • A change in frequency of bowel movements

  • Change in stool color

  • Bloody stools

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Persistent or recurrent vomiting

  • Chest pain

After the doctor obtains your medical history and examines your body, he may request for laboratory tests which may include blood tests, urine tests, x-ray, and other imaging exams, and endoscopic examinations to determine the cause of your symptoms.

How to Prevent Bloating

If your bloating is due to intestinal gas, which is the most common cause of bloating, you can avoid it by:

  • Eating smaller portions

  • Limiting gas-forming foods, such as broccoli, legumes, beans, beer, eggs, protein rich foods, etc.

  • Eating slowly, and chewing instead of gulping

  • Treating constipation, which causes gas build-up

  • Stop smoking

  • Regular exercise.

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