5 Signs Your Bloating Could Be Something Serious

It's usually nothing to worry about, but here's when you should talk to a healthcare provider about bloating.

Bloating is–­thankfully–usually just an annoyance. Your belly inflates, and you feel uncomfortable, but you move around, drink some water, or sleep it off and it goes away. You chalk it up to your upcoming period or something you ate, like broccoli, beans, or too much fruit.

Every once in a while, though, bloating can be a sign of a more serious illness. For instance, it can be one of the first symptoms people notice of ovarian cancer. A 2018 YouGov survey conducted by UK charity Target Ovarian Cancer found that just 34% of people would talk to a healthcare provider if they were regularly bloated; many said they'd instead change their diet. A previous survey by the same group found that just 20% of the persons polled knew that bloating could be a symptom of ovarian cancer.

Feeling bloated in and of itself isn't enough to point to cancer. Other signs can help you distinguish bloating that's just a nuisance from bloating that warrants medical attention. Here are the symptoms you should talk to your healthcare provider about.

Pain

Ovarian cancer bloating is due to a buildup of fluid (called ascites) in your abdomen and can also come with pain, according to a 2013 study published in Frontiers in Oncology. Most of the fluid is formed from cancer cells. Still, it can also be the result of blockages in the lymphatic drainage system or intestinal blockages caused by cancer, said Lauren Cobb, MD, assistant professor of gynecologic, oncologic, and reproductive medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Per MedlinePlus, painful bloating could signal a bowel obstruction, a small or large intestine blockage that stops food from passing through.

Bloating That Doesn't Go Away

For bloating to be potentially worrisome, it generally needs to have lasted for more than two weeks in a month, said Monique Swain, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

If bloating doesn't go away after making simple diet swaps or going to the bathroom, speak up. "If bloating is persistent and does not vary with changing eating habits or bowel movements, it is a good idea to seek medical care," added Alex Hewlett, DO, associate professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Changes in Bathroom Habits

Another clue that bloating could be a sign of ovarian cancer is a change in your bathroom behavior. Out-of-the-ordinary bowel or urinary issues can be a tip that something is wrong.

For example, you might suddenly need to go to the bathroom more urgently "if a mass is big enough and pressing on the bladder," said Dr. Swain.

Appetite Changes

Bloating can also be a sign of other cancers, like breast, pancreatic, colon, and stomach cancer, if cancer appears along the lining of the abdominal cavity, said Dr. Cobb.

Large masses that take up a lot of space in the abdominal area can lead to changes in appetite, like feeling full very quickly or not wanting to eat. Some people with bloating due to cancer also experience nausea and vomiting.

Fatigue

When bloating is accompanied by fatigue, it may be a sign of certain conditions.

Liver disease

Liver disease–which can be caused by alcohol use, hepatitis C, cancer, and more–can also lead to bloating and fluid buildup.

"Normally, this is a slow, insidious process where you just start to feel it in the lower belly," Dr. Hewlett said. "As it progresses, your belly becomes more and more distended with fluid."

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, if your bloating is due to liver disease, you might also feel tired, bruise easily, or develop jaundice, a yellowish tinge to the skin and eyes. "Seek medical care if there are other symptoms associated with bloating like these," Dr. Hewlett added.

Congestive heart failure

Congestive heart failure (CHF) can also result in bloating, not just in the abdomen but with swelling in the legs too. Per the American Heart Association, other symptoms of CHF may include fatigue, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations.

In both heart failure and liver disease, bloating is usually a later symptom. "Once you get bloating and fluid retention, it may mean the disease process affecting your liver or heart is advanced," said Dr. Hewlett. It's important to speak up about your symptoms sooner rather than later.

Summary

Temporary bloating is common and is usually not a cause for concern. However, if you have severe or persistent bloating—especially if other symptoms accompany it—you should let your healthcare provider know right away. It could signal something more serious.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles