Distended abdomen

Alternative names 
Swollen belly; Swelling in the abdomen; Abdominal distention; Abdomen - swollen

A swollen abdomen is marked by increased abdominal girth.


Abdominal distention is a common condition, which usually results from over-eating, rather than from a serious illness. Simple weight gain, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), pregnancy, or the unconscious swallowing of air can also cause distention.

Abdominal distention is often caused by intestinal gas. This may result from eating fibrous foods such as fruits and vegetables. Legumes such as beans are common sources of intestinal gas. People who are lactose intolerant cannot properly digest dairy foods, and eating such foods may cause distention.

Abdominal distention may also occasionally result from the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, which can be a sign of serious medical problems. There are usually other symptoms in this case.

Common Causes

  • overeating  
  • lactose intolerance  
  • air swallowing (a nervous habit)  
  • irritable bowel syndrome  
  • partial bowel obstruction

Home Care

Distention resulting from a heavy meal will go away when the food is digested. Eating in moderation will help prevent swelling.

For distention caused by swallowing air, awareness often leads to self-control. Eat slowly, avoid carbonated beverages, avoid chewing gum or sucking on candies, avoid drinking through a straw, or sipping the surface of a hot beverage.

For distention caused by malabsorption, try changing diets and reducing milk consumption. Consult your doctor.

For irritable bowel syndrome, increase dietary fiber, decrease emotional stress, and consult your doctor.

For distention resulting from other causes, follow prescribed therapy to treat the underlying cause.

Call your health care provider if

Reasons to call your health care provider include the following:

  • Your abdominal girth is progressive and unrelenting.  
  • The swelling is accompanied by other unexplained symptoms.  
  • Your abdomen is tender to the touch.

What to expect at your health care provider’s office

Your health care provider will obtain a medical history and will perform a physical examination, which may include a detailed examination of the abdomen.

Medical history questions documenting swollen abdomen in detail may include the following:

  • Time pattern       o Did it begin recently?       o Does it occur after meals or after specific foods?  
  • What other symptoms are occurring at the same time? Especially, have you noticed:       o Weight gain       o Irritability       o Absent menstrual period       o Vomiting       o Excessive fatigue       o Excessive gas (flatus) or belching       o Diarrhea

Diagnostic tests that may be performed include the following:

  • Abdominal CT scan  
  • Abdominal ultrasound  
  • Blood tests  
  • Endoscopy       o Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD)       o Colonoscopy       o Sigmoidoscopy  
  • Laparoscopy  
  • Paracentesis  
  • Stool analysis  
  • X-rays of the abdomen


Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 2, 2012
by Arthur A. Poghosian, M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.