Flatulence: Causes, remedies, and complications

Flatulence is a buildup of gas in the digestive system that can lead to abdominal discomfort. Most people experience flatulence.

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.

Fast facts on flatulence

Here are some key points about flatulence. More detail is in the main article.

The average human passes wind between 10 and 18 times a day.

People often pass gas without noticing.

Healthy gas is harmless and has no odor.

Lifestyle changes can often reduce flatulence.

Sometimes, there is an underlying medical condition that needs urgent attention, such as food poisoning or an intestinal blockage.

What is flatulence?

[Flatulence pain]
Visit a doctor if flatulence is accompanied by abdominal pain.

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, releasing sulfur.

[Flatulence beans]
Being aware of foods that cause excess flatulence can help reduce the problem.

Beans: Complex carbohydrates in beans are difficult for humans to digest. They are digested by microorganisms in the gut known as gut flora, which produce methane. When the complex carbohydrates reach the lower intestine, bacteria feed on them and produce gas.

Lactose intolerance: When people consume food that contains lactose, such as milk, and lack the enzymes to break it down, the bacteria feed on the lactose. In some people, this produces large amounts of gas.

Celiac disease: Intolerance to the protein gluten means that some people have excessive flatulence when they consume barley, wheat, and rye.

Artificial sweeteners: Sorbitol and mannitol are found in candies, chewing-gums, and sugar-free sweet foods. Some people develop diarrhea, gas or both when they consume these substances.

Fiber supplements: Adding these too rapidly to the diet can cause flatulence, especially if they contain psyllium.

Carbonated drinks: Fizzy drinks and beer may cause a build-up of gas in the intestinal tract.

Anyone who is concerned about how their diet may be causing flatulence should ask a doctor or a qualified dietitian for advice.

Conditions that can worsen flatulence

Underlying health conditions: Some chronic conditions can cause flatulence, for example, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or diverticulitis. Some types of cancer can lead to a blockage in the intestines. Anyone who experiences a sudden or worsening increase in flatulence should see a doctor.

Gallbladder problems: Gallstones and cholecystitis can cause additional gas.

Constipation: Feces can make it harder to expel excess gas, resulting in further accumulation and discomfort.

Gastroenteritis and other intestinal infections: A viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection of the digestive system, or food poisoning, can cause a buildup of gas. Examples include Escherichia coli (E. coli) infection, amebiasis, and giardiasis.

Antibiotics: These can upset the normal intestinal flora, or bacterial flora, in the gut, leading to flatulence.

Laxatives: Regular and excessive use of laxatives can increase the risk of developing flatulence.

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