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Ascites

Ascites is the build-up of fluid in the space between the lining of the abdomen and abdominal organs.

Alternative Names

Portal hypertension - ascites

Causes

Ascites results from high pressure in the blood vessels of the liver (portal hypertension) and low levels of a protein called albumin .

Diseases that can cause severe liver damage can lead to ascites. These include long-term hepatitis C or B infection and alcohol abuse over many years.

People with certain cancers in the abdomen may develop ascites. These include cancer of the colon, ovaries, uterus, pancreas, and liver.

Other conditions that can cause this problem include:

Kidney dialysis may also be linked to ascites.

Symptoms

Symptoms may develop slowly or suddenly depending on the cause of ascites. You may have no symptoms if there is only a small amount of fluid in the belly.

As more fluid collects, you may have abdominal pain and bloating. Large amounts of fluid can cause shortness of breath.

Many other symptoms of liver failure may also be present.

Exams and Tests

Your doctor will do a physical exam to determine the amount of swelling in your belly.

You may also have the following tests to assess your liver and kidneys:

  • 24-hour urine collection
  • Electrolyte levels
  • Kidney function tests
  • Liver function tests
  • Tests to measure the risk of bleeding and protein levels in the blood
  • Urinalysis
  • Abdominal ultrasound

Your doctor may also use a thin needle to withdraw ascites fluid from your belly. The fluid is tested to look for the cause of ascites.

Treatment

The condition that causes ascites will be treated, if possible.

Treatments for fluid build-up may include lifestyle changes :

  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Lowering salt in your diet (no more than 1,500 mg/day of sodium)
  • Limiting fluid intake

You may also get medicines from your doctor including:

  • "Water pills" (diuretics) to get rid of extra fluid
  • Antibiotics for infections

Procedures that you may have are:

  • Inserting a tube into the belly to remove large volumes of fluid (called a paracentesis)
  • Placing a special tube or shunt inside your belly (TIPS) to repair blood flow to the liver
People with end-stage liver disease may need a liver transplant .

Possible Complications

  • Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (a life-threatening infection of the ascites fluid)
  • Hepatorenal syndrome (kidney failure)
  • Weight loss and protein malnutrition
  • Mental confusion, change in the level of alertness, or coma (hepatic encephalopathy)
  • Other complications of liver cirrhosis

When to Contact a Medical Professional

If you have ascites, call your health care provider right away if you have:

  • Fever above 100.5F, or a fever that does not go away
  • Belly pain
  • Blood in your stool or black, tarry stools
  • Blood in your vomit
  • Bruising or bleeding that occurs more easily
  • Build-up of fluid in your belly
  • Swollen legs or ankles
  • Breathing problems
  • Confusion or problems staying awake
  • Yellow color in your skin and whites of your eyes (jaundice)

References

Runyon BA. Ascites and spontaneous bacterial peritonitis. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 91.

Runyon BA; AASLD Practice Guidelines Committee. Management of adult patients with ascites due to cirrhosis: Update 2012. American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. 2013.

Mehta G, Rothstein KD. Health maintenance issues in cirrhosis. Med Clin North Am. 2009;93:901-915.

Garcia-Tsao G. Cirrhosis and its sequelae. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 156.

Updated: 10/13/2013

George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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