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Symptoms and Treatment of Intestinal Gas

Gas Can Be Uncomfortable But Is Often Treated With Diet And Lifestyle Changes

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Updated September 22, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Abdominal Pain

Intestinal gas can often be painful, but it is usually not serious.

Photo © Ohmega1982
Gas is a common problem for many people. In most cases, gas is not a symptom of a larger problem, although it can be embarrassing, painful, and uncomfortable. If you do have excess gas that is not responding to a change in diet and lifestyle habits, you can see your doctor for an evaluation.

What Is Gas?

Gas is a completely normal part of digestion, and everyone has gas. Gas can be taken in by swallowing air during eating or drinking, or can develop during the digestive process. When food is not broken down completely in the small intestine, it passes through to the large intestine where the bacteria digests food further, but also creates gas. Some common foods that cause many people to have gas include dairy products, beans, and artificial sweeteners.

Symptoms of Gas

The symptoms of gas include:
  • Belching: Belching can occur from swallowing air or drinking carbonated drinks.
  • Flatulence: Passing gas from the rectum is most often from diet, but in rare cases can be from other causes.
  • Abdominal bloating: Unreleased gas in the digestive tract can cause bloating.
  • Abdominal pain and discomfort: Pain from gas is not uncommon, but is usually relieved when the gas is passed.

What Are Some Common Causes of Gas?

Excessive Air Swallowing: We swallow air when we eat and drink, whether or not we are aware of it. Slurping drinks, eating too fast, talking while eating, drinking through a straw, and chewing gum can all cause excess air to enter the digestive tract. Once this air gets in, it must then get out, usually through belching. Changing the way you eat can help reduce gas from this cause.

Food: There are some foods that are well-known for causing gas, such as beans, corn, broccoli, and cabbage. Dairy can result in gas for those who have lactose intolerance (see below). Carbonated beverages and gum can lead to belching. Sugar substitutes, which can include sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol, may also cause gas in some people.

Lactose Intolerance: Lactose intolerance is a common problem that is caused by the lack of the enzyme that breaks down milk sugar. Abstaining from milk products may improve the symptoms of gas, and continued avoidance is the usual treatment. Lactose-free milk products are now available for those who want to rid their diet of milk sugar.

How Is Gas Diagnosed?

Food Diary: Most often, gas is due to diet. Keeping a detailed food and symptom diary can help you and your doctor determine if your diet is contributing to your problems with gas. You don't need anything special to keep your diary -- pen and paper will do just fine. If you want to get more technical, a spreadsheet is also a way to keep track of your diet, and there are also many applications that you can download on smartphones or other devices.

Ruling Out Disease: Gas is not usually caused by a disease or a disorder, but if gas is excessive and not caused by diet, a physician may look for other causes. After taking your medical history and performing a physical, some diagnostic tests might be used to find out what is causing the gas. Some diseases that may be associated with gas include celiac disease, diabetes, scleroderma, and small bowel bacterial overgrowth.

Tests that may be used to evaluate excess gas include:

What Is The Treatment For Gas?

Diet
The first step, and the one with the fewest possible side effects, is making changes to the diet. Foods that are known to commonly cause gas in most people can be avoided. It should not take long to determine if this approach is helpful.

The common reasons for gas from diet are outlined above, but every person is different, and a food diary can help you find the foods that cause you gas. The treatment for gas from diet would be to avoid gassy foods, eat them in smaller amounts, or eat them singly. A certain amount of trial-and-error can help you figure out which method will work best in reducing gas.

Over the Counter Medications
There are several treatments for gas that you can find right in your drugstore. Lactase is an enzyme that can be taken along with milk products in order to digest milk sugar, thereby avoiding gas for those that lack the enzyme in their body. Beano is another digestive enzyme that can be taken in order to reduce the gas caused by eating beans, vegetables, and grains. Simethicone (brand names include Phazyme, Flatulex, Mylicon, Gas-X, and Mylanta Gas) may not help with reducing gas, but it may help in passing gas more easily. Antacids may not help with excess gas. Activated charcoal has not been proven to reduce gas, and should not be taken at the same time as other medications, as there is a risk of reducing their effectiveness.

Prescription Medications
There are some prescription medications that are sometimes used to treat excess gas, but this is not common. Reglan (metoclopramide) may be prescribed for a variety of digestive conditions because it increases the motility in the upper gastrointestinal tract. This may help the body to pass the gas more quickly, and avoid abdominal bloating and pain.

Propulsid (cisapride) has been used to treat gas, but this drug is now strictly regulated and not often prescribed. It also works by increasing motility in the digestive tract.

Conclusion

While gas affects many people, in most cases it is not serious, and does not indicate that there is a more serious disease present. A change in diet and lifestyle can often help with reducing the symptoms of gas. People often think they have too much gas when in fact they have a normal amount, but if you are concerned about the amount of gas you have or it is causing a significant amount of discomfort, speak to your physician.

Sources:

Azpiroz F, Serra J. "Treatment of Excessive Intestinal Gas." Curr Treat Options Gastroenterol. 2004 Aug;7:299-305.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). "Gas in the Digestive Tract." National Institutes of Health. Jan 2008. 07 Jun 2012.

Winham DM, Hutchins AM. "Perceptions of flatulence from bean consumption among adults in 3 feeding studies." Nutr J. 2011 Nov 21;10:128.

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