Flatulence is a buildup of gas in the digestive system. This can lead to abdominal discomfort. Most people experience flatulence, but it can cause embarrassment when gas is passed. Excessive flatulence can cause discomfort and distress. It often occurs as the result of eating certain foods, but it can be a sign of a more serious condition. In most cases, a change of diet and lifestyle can help control excessive gas.
When we eat, drink or swallow saliva, we also swallow tiny amounts of air. This swallowed air accumulates in the gut. The gas within our digestive system consists mainly of nitrogen and oxygen. When we digest food, gas, mainly in the form of hydrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide, is released. As the gas builds up, the body may need to eliminate it, either through the mouth, by belching, or by passing wind through the anal passage. Flatulence often occurs without the person being aware of it. There is no smell, and the amount is tiny. When there is a smell, there are usually small amounts of sulfur gases. If food has not been properly digested, it starts to decompose, or rot, releasing sulfur.
Flatulence is not usually a serious problem, and dietary changes or over-the-counter (OTC) medications can resolve it. Flatulence does not usually require medical attention. However, it may be a good idea to seek advice if:
- excess amounts of gas accumulate
- flatulence occurs frequently
- symptoms start to become more severe
- gas is often released involuntarily
- there is a consistently foul smell
- additional symptoms indicate a possible underlying digestive condition
- sharp, jabbing pains, or cramps, occur in the abdomen, and the pains change places
- there is a bloated feeling or knotted sensation in the abdomen
If signs and symptoms regularly occur after eating particular foods, cutting out those items may help reduce it.
Flatulence can be the result of normal bodily processes, or it may stem from a condition that affects the digestive system. Exogenous sources are those that come from outside. We swallow air when we eat, drink, or swallow saliva, especially when excess saliva is produced, due to nausea or acid reflux. Endogenous sources are inside the gut. Gas may arise as a by-product of digestion of certain foods, or when foods are not completely digested. If any food is not digested completely by the stomach or the small intestine, flatulence can occur when it reaches the large intestine.
Flatulence does not require a diagnosis, but if an individual is concerned about symptoms, a doctor can help discover the underlying cause. The doctor will ask the patient about their medical history and dietary habits and carry out a physical exam. They will check to determine whether there is any distension in the abdomen and listen for a hollow sound by tapping the abdomen. A hollow sound usually means there is gas.
The doctor may ask about bowel movements, whether there is any straining when passing a stool, or whether there is abdominal pain after meals. This may help decide whether the patient might have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If there is evidence of additional signs and symptoms, the doctor may refer the patient to a specialist for an endoscopy. This is an internal examination involving a long, thin tube with a camera and light at the end.
Flatulence can be avoided by not eating foods that are likely to cause flatulence, such as those containing high levels of carbohydrates that cannot be absorbed. Ask your doctor or a qualified dietitian for advice. It is important that your diet contains your daily nutritional requirements in calories, vitamins, minerals, etc.