What is ascites?

Ascites is a condition in which fluid collects in spaces within your abdomen. If severe, ascites may be painful. The problem may keep you from moving around comfortably. Ascites can set the stage for an infection in your abdomen. Fluid may also move into your chest and surround your lungs. This makes it hard to breathe.

What causes ascites?

The most common cause of ascites is cirrhosis of the liver. Drinking too much alcohol is the most common cause of cirrhosis of the liver.  

Different types of cancer can also cause this condition.  Ascites caused by cancer most often occur with advanced or recurrent cancer of the ovary, bladder, colon, breast, pancreas, or lung, and with lymphomas.

What are the symptoms of ascites?

These are symptoms of ascites:

  • Swelling in the abdomen
  • Weight gain
  • Sense of fullness
  • Bloating
  • Sense of heaviness
  • Nausea or indigestion
  • Vomiting
  • Swelling in the lower legs
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hemorrhoids

How is ascites diagnosed?

Your health care provider will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms. You may also have tests such as:

  • Fluid sample. A sample of fluid from your abdomen may be taken using a needle. This fluid will be checked for signs of disease, such as cancer or an infection. This test may help point to the cause of the ascites.
  • Imaging. Your health care provider may request images of the inside of your abdomen using ultrasound, X-rays, or a CT scan. A CT scan creates computerized images using X-rays.

How is ascites treated?

A number of steps may help ease your ascites. Your health care provider may tell you to:

  • Cut back on your salt intake. Your health care provider or a dietitian can show you how to follow a low-sodium diet. Avoid salt substitutes that contain potassium. This is because some medications used in treating ascites can cause your potassium levels to rise.
  • Cut back on the amount of fluids you drink.
  • Stop drinking alcohol.
  • Take diuretic medicines to help reduce the fluid in your body.
  • In certain cases, your doctor may need to remove large amounts of fluid from your abdomen through a needle. This may be done if you have trouble breathing or the diuretic is not working.

What are the complications of ascites?

Ascites can make eating, drinking, and moving around difficult. It can also make it hard to breathe. Ascites can lead to abdominal infections, which may cause kidney failure. It can also cause umbilical or inguinal hernias.

Can ascites be prevented?

Certain steps to help you avoid cirrhosis of the liver and cancer can prevent ascites. These include:

  • Stop drinking alcohol
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Stop smoking
  • Limit salt in your diet

Living with ascites

Be sure to follow your health care provider's advice for lowering your salt intake. You'll need to do this even if you're taking diuretic drugs to reduce fluid in your body. Also, weigh yourself daily and call your health care provider if you gain too much weight.

Key points

  • Ascites is a condition in which fluid collects in spaces within your abdomen.
  • As fluid collects in the abdomen, it can affect your lungs, kidneys, and other organs.
  • Ascites causes abdominal pain, swelling, nausea, vomiting, and other difficulties.
  • Stopping all alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, not smoking, and limiting salt intake can help prevent cirrhosis or cancer that may lead to ascites.
  • Ascites can’t be cured but lifestyle changes and treatments may decrease complications.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.