What is bloating? Symptoms, causes and prevention

Bloating refers to air or gas filling the gastrointestinal tract and resulting in the abdomen feeling full, swollen and tight. Bloating can be frustrating and interfere with daily life activities, however, it is a common occurrence in both adults and children. It can be caused by a number of reasons, and while bloating mostly occurs without medical causes, it can also be a sign of an underlying health issue. This guide will explore bloating, highlighting the causes, symptoms and prevention/treatments available.

What is bloating?

Bloating occurs when gas or air fills up the digestive tract. This is typically due to air being swallowed by an individual while eating or drinking. Gas also develops in the digestive tract in order to digest food, therefore eating large meals can also lead to bloating. Bloating leaves a feeling of excessive fullness (feeling ‘stuffed’) and a swollen / tight abdomen, which can be accompanied by unpleasant symptoms such as excessive gas, burping, belching and tummy pain.

Bloating is not to be confused with water retention, and affects approximately 16–30% of individuals on a regular basis.

What are the symptoms of bloating?

Typically, the symptoms of bloating include the following:

  • Abdominal pain and discomfort
  • Abdominal rumbling
  • Excessive gas
  • Burping
  • Belching
  • Stomach that is bigger in appearance

What are the causes of bloating?

Air

The most common cause of bloating is air being swallowed while eating and/or drinking. While we all swallow a certain amount of air when we eat and drink, some people swallow excessive amounts of air due to:

  • Eating or drinking too fast
  • Eating or drinking too much
  • Talking while eating or drinking
  • Chewing gum
  • Smoking
  • Drinking fizzy drinks

While bloating caused by those reasons is no cause for concern and typically subsides within a few hours, it can be uncomfortable and interfere with daily life activities.

Medical causes

Although bloating is very common and typically does not indicate a medical condition, it may be caused or aggravated by one of the following potential underlying health issues:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (for instance Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
  • Coeliac disease (gluten intolerance)
  • Food intolerance
  • Parasite infection in the intestines (giardiasis)
  • Hormonal fluctuations in women
  • Eating disorders
  • Mental health problems
  • Side effects of some medications

Such health issues can be contained or treated in order to live a normal life and reduce the symptoms of bloating. However, bloating can also be caused by more serious health conditions which require immediate medical investigation and treatment. These include:

  • Ovarian cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney failure
  • Congestive heart failure
  • pancreatic insufficiency
  • perforation of the gastrointestinal tract

How to prevent and treat bloating

Prevention

Bloating caused by swallowing excessive amounts of air can be prevented with simple lifestyle changes, including:

  • Avoid chewing gum
  • Avoid fizzy drinks
  • Avoid gas-causing foods (for instance cabbage, beans and lentils)
  • Avoid drinking through a straw
  • Eat slower
  • Eat smaller portions
  • Add probiotics to your diet (fermented foods, supplements)
  • Eat dairy-free and lactose-free foods if you are intolerant

Treatment

If the lifestyle changes above mentioned aren’t sufficient to relieve bloating, you may need to consult your GP to establish the cause of persistent bloating. Treatment will depend on what is causing your bloating problems. A food intolerance test may be the first step to establish any sensitivities and help you adjust your diet accordingly.

Typically, treatment of non-threatening, manageable conditions will involve medications such as antibiotics, antispasmodics and antidepressants. Treatment for more serious underlying health conditions will largely depend on the condition causing your bloating – from medications to surgery.

When is bloating considered serious?

Bloating is usually no cause for concern. However, if symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and weight loss accompany recurrent bloating then it is recommended that you consult your GP to establish the cause.

How can I reduce bloating instantly?

There are a few steps you can take to help relieve bloating quicker. These include going for a walk, doing a yoga session, taking gas relief capsules, and taking peppermint and ginger supplements.

How can I get tested for bloating?

At a clinic

You can opt for our Digestion and Nutrition Essential plan, which includes a lactose intolerance test, a stomach cancer risk test, a gluten intolerance test, and a calprotectin test to check for signs of Crohn’s disease, IBD and IBS. Our health checks consist of in-depth, face-to-face health checks with one of our Health Assessment Specialists, which you can easily book online at one of over 2,000 mobile clinics available nationwide. You will receive a wide array of other key health markers and a detailed results report sent through the post.