Causes of Abdominal Swelling and Bloating

When can these symptoms mean ovarian cancer?

Abdominal bloating or swelling is described in many different ways. Some people describe it more as a symptom—as a feeling of indigestion or a tight abdomen. Others define it more as a sign—that they can visually see that their belly is distended or their clothes look too tight around the middle.

Depending on the cause, this symptom can come on suddenly or gradually, and it may persist or come and go.

woman with abdominal pain on couch
Moyo Studio / Getty Images

Possible Causes of Abdominal Swelling and Bloating

Many different conditions or lifestyle behaviors can cause bloating. Some causes may include the following conditions.

Abdominal Mass

A growth, such as a tumor, is not a common cause of abdominal swelling or bloating, but it is a serious cause. Tumors anywhere in the abdominal or pelvic region can be large enough to cause visible swelling or a lump that you can feel with your hands. More commonly, a tumor can cause inflammation, bowel obstruction, or ascites—which may lead to swelling.

Ascites

Ascites is a build-up of fluid in the abdomen, typically from liver cirrhosis or cancer. Additional symptoms that would indicate ascites include abdominal pain, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting.

Appendicitis

Appendicitis is an infection of the appendix, and it can cause severe pain, fever, and inflammation, and rarely, it can cause bloating. The infection may spread to other areas of the gastrointestinal system, or the appendix can rupture due to appendicitis, and these complications are life-threatening. Urgent treatment often includes surgery, and sometimes antibiotics are prescribed.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye) triggers an immune response that affects the small intestines. Symptoms of celiac disease include bloating, diarrhea, gas, bloating, headaches, and many more.

Colic

Though usually associated with babies, adults can have colic too. Colic in adults is typically caused by kidney stones, gallstones, or intestinal blockage. Bloating from colic is usually accompanied by pain and tenderness. Other symptoms can vary depending on what is causing the colic.

Colon Cancer

Colon cancer symptoms include changes in bowel habits, loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. The cancer usually doesn't cause abdominal swelling in the early stages, but intestinal blockage from the tumor can lead to abdominal swelling.

Constipation

Constipation is a common cause of abdominal swelling and bloating, and one that many people experience at some point in their life. Other symptoms that would indicate constipation include fewer than three bowel movements per week, straining to use the bathroom, and hard stools. There are many causes of constipation, among them diet, medication, and pregnancy.

Crohn's Disease

Crohn's disease is a type of chronic inflammatory bowel disease that causes gas, cramping, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes blood in the stool.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis affects the body in many ways, including the digestive system. CF can impact the pancreas, and interfere with the enzymes it makes that aid digestion. Undigested food can wreak havoc with the digestive system and can cause many gastrointestinal symptoms, including bloating, gas, and greasy or loose stools.

Diet and Eating Habits

Overeating can cause you to feel bloated, and some foods are much more likely to do this than others.

Several types of foods can cause some people to have excessive gas. Fatty foods and a variety of healthy foods such as cruciferous vegetables (broccoli and Brussels sprouts), beans, some fruits (apples and oranges), dairy products, alcohol, and carbonated beverages.

Eating too much can cause bloating or expansion of the stomach. Swallowing air from eating too quickly or from chewing gum can also cause bloating.

Diverticulitis

Diverticulitis is a painful condition that affects the colon. Abdominal pain is the most common symptom, along with fever, cramping, constipation, chills, or vomiting. Bloating is rare, but can occur.

Dumping Syndrome

When food moves too quickly from the stomach to the duodenum and large intestine, it can cause a condition called dumping syndrome that can cause bloating. Dumping syndrome is sometimes a complication of stomach surgery or esophageal surgery.

Dyspepsia

Also known as indigestion, dyspepsia can cause abdominal discomfort, including bloating. Symptoms also include belching, a painful or burning sensation, or nausea.

Ectopic Pregnancy

When a fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus, it is an ectopic pregnancy. This can cause severe pain, and sometimes it may cause abdominal swelling, usually on one side.

E. Coli Infection

E. coli is a bacteria that may be transmitted through contaminated food or unhygienic practices in food preparation and handwashing. This infection can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and bloating.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a chronic condition. It occurs when endometrial tissue, which is the tissue that lines the uterus, also grows in other areas of the pelvis and abdomen—such as he ovaries. It can cause discomfort and swelling, often with a cyclical pattern that worsens before the menstrual period.

Gallstones

Gallstones are hard clumps that form in the gallbladder, causing pain and inflammation. They can be medically or surgically treated.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and Acid Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is known more commonly as acid reflux. It occurs when contents from the stomach are pushed into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation. One of the most common effects of GERD is abdominal bloating. Other symptoms include a dry cough, heartburn, hiccups, nausea, and sore throat.

Gastroparesis

Gastroparesis is when the stomach muscles don't move as they should. This can cause discomfort, nausea, vomiting, bloating, and abdominal swelling. There are many causes of gastroparesis, including medication, viral infection, inflammatory disease and muscle disease.

H. Pylori Infection

H. Pylori is a bacterial infection that doesn't usually cause symptoms, but it can cause stomach ulcers, and less often, it can contribute to the development of stomach cancer. .

Hernias

There are many types of hernias. For example, a hiatal hernia is a protrusion of the stomach above the diaphragm. And an inguinal hernia is a bulging of the intestine in the inguinal canal, which is a small opening of tissue. These and other hernia types can cause swelling, pain, discomfort, and bloating.

Intestinal Infections

There are many viral and bacterial infections that can affect the intestines, as well as the stomach. They can cause fevers, bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and inflammation.

Intestinal Obstruction

An intestinal obstruction (blockage) can be partial or complete. There are many causes of intestinal obstruction, including infections, cancer, and anatomical issues. Sometimes constipation can cause blockage as well. Obstruction may cause bloating, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal swelling. In severe cases it can be life threatening.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome affects up to 15% of the population and results in recurrent abdominal bloating and swelling, along with other bowel symptoms.

Bloating is one of the most bothersome reported symptoms of IBS and it is caused by excessive gas. Additional symptoms include diarrhea, gas, and constipation.

Lactose Intolerance

You may think of lactose intolerance or sensitivity to dairy products as being something you are born with, but lactose intolerance may develop at any time over the course of your life. Many people first notice this based on symptoms of recurrent abdominal bloating after eating dairy products.

Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of white blood cell cancer. The condition causes swelling of lymph nodes throughout the body, and it can cause abdominal swelling or abdominal discomfort.

Ovarian Cancer

While ovarian cancer isn't the most common cause of abdominal swelling and bloating, these symptoms are one of the more common symptoms of ovarian cancer.

It is also a symptom that is frequently ignored. The bloating may be so bad that one can't button their pants, or even have to go up a size.

Ovarian Cysts

Ovarian cysts can develop during the reproductive years of a woman's life and may not have any symptoms. Symptoms can occur when the cysts become large or ruptured, causing bloating, sudden onset of pain, delayed or irregular periods, or pain during sexual intercourse.

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer can have more specific symptoms in later stages that include jaundice (yellowing of the eyes or skin), pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back, nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, and weight loss. Bloating and abdominal swelling are less common symptoms.

Pancreatic Insufficiency

Pancreatitis (infection or inflammation of the pancreas), cystic fibrosis, and inflammatory bowel disease are among the conditions that can affect the way the pancreas works. Insufficient pancreatic activity can lead to digestive problems, bloating, and abdominal swelling.

Peptic Ulcer Disease

A peptic ulcer is a stomach ulcer. It can cause discomfort, heartburn, gas, bloating, nausea, vomiting, and more.

Peritonitis

The peritoneum is the lining around the abdominal organs. It can become inflamed or infected, leading to peritonitis. Symptoms can include pain, nausea, vomiting, abdominal swelling, and constipation.

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

For some women, hormonal shifts during the menstrual cycle can cause gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. especially in the second half of the menstrual cycle after ovulation occurs.

Additionally, PMS and bloating can occur as common symptoms due to decreased estrogen levels before a woman's period.

Pregnancy is another time when hormones can cause GI symptoms. A growing fetus may cause a sensation that feels like bloating too.

Short Bowel Syndrome

Short bowel syndrome occurs when a portion of the bowel is surgically removed. These procedures may be done for treatment of cancer, bowel infarction, diverticulitis, or inflammatory bowel disease.

Weight loss surgeries often also involve removal of a section of the bowel.

This can cause a sense of abdominal fullness, bloating, or swelling. Generally, it is advised to eat slowly to avoid these symptoms.

Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)

Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is a condition caused by an excessive amount of bacteria growing in the small intestines. Symptoms can include fatigue, weight loss, foul-odorous stools, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.

Stomach Cancer

Gastric (stomach) cancer can cause a loss of appetite, indigestion, heartburn, or bloating after eating.

Swallowing Air

Swallowing air is very common, but you can swallow more air than usual if you eat very fast. This can cause bloating, burping, and gas.

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis can cause a variety of symptoms, including bloody diarrhea, frequent urgency to have a bowel movement, fever, loss of appetite, mucus in the stool, and bloating.

Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)

A UTI typically causes urinary frequency and urgency, often with a sensation of burning with urination. Sometimes the abdomen may feel like it's bloated or swollen as well.

Uterine Cancer

Uterine cancer symptoms include abnormal bleeding or heavy bleeding, vaginal discharge, changes in bowel movements, sudden weight loss, and abdominal bloating. Vaginal bleeding after menopause can be one of the signs.

Uterine Fibroids

Uterine fibroids are growths in the uterus. They can cause cramping and discomfort, which can vary throughout the menstrual cycle. Sometimes uterine fibroids can be very large, and may cause abdominal swelling.

Viral Gastroenteritis

Viral gastroenteritis is a common type of infection. These infections are contagious and can include "the stomach flu," among others. Symptoms usually include abdominal discomfort, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and bloating. Most of the time, these infections resolve on their own within a few days, but sometimes treatment with IV fluids and electrolytes is necessary.

Weight Gain

For some people, gaining weight can lead to bloating and a sense that the stomach is always "full" or swollen. Often, weight gain causes previously comfortable clothes to feel tight on the abdomen. Being overweight or obese is also a risk factor for heartburn.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Abdominal bloating is very common, but abdominal swelling is not. Sometimes bloating is a sign that you ate too much, but sometimes it is a sign of a medical condition. If your symptoms are worsening or persistent, talk to your healthcare provider.

Symptoms of Concern

Get urgent medical attention if your bloating or abdominal swelling is accompanied by:

  • Fever
  • Uncontrolled or excessive vomiting
  • Blood in vomit or stool
  • Uncontrolled diarrhea
  • No bowel movements for 3 days or longer
  • Severe pain or tenderness
  • Dizziness, changes in consciousness

If you are worried, it's better to talk to your doctor or get medical attention than to wait it out.

Diagnosing Abdominal Swelling and Bloating

Abdominal swelling and bloating have so many causes, and the diagnosis often has to be speedy to ensure immediate treatment for certain serious causes—such as bowel obstruction and appendicitis.

The first step your healthcare providers will take in assessing your abdominal bloating and swelling is history and physical examination. You will be asked about the duration, pattern, and location, as well as any associated symptoms you are experiencing, and whether anything makes it better or worse.

Your physical examination includes an assessment of whether you are in distress, your temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and breathing rate.

Often, abdominal bloating is non-specific in location, and pain can radiate (travel) from its source to another area. Your provider will examine you to determine whether you have a specific location of pain or swelling. For example, a sense of bloating in the upper abdominal area could be associated with a peptic ulcer, while swelling in the lower abdomen on one side is more likely to be associated with an ovarian cyst.

Diagnostic tests can include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC): This blood test can detect low red blood cells, a sign of bleeding, or high white blood cells, a sign of infection or cancer.
  • Urine test: This test can detect signs of a UTI.
  • Stool analysis: A stool sample can be assessed for evidence of an infection.
  • Imaging tests: An abdominal or pelvic computerized tomography (CT) scan or ultrasound can detect fluid, tumors. obstruction, and more.

Additional tests may include minimally invasive tests. During endoscopy, a tube is placed into the throat, and during a colonoscopy, a tube is placed in the colon so your doctor can view areas of potential disease.

A Word From Verywell

You should see your healthcare provider if you experience abdominal swelling or bloating. This can alleviate your symptoms and help you get a diagnosis if your discomfort is caused by a serious condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is considered the lower abdomen?

    The abdomen is the area between the chest and the pelvis. The lower abdomen is considered the area below the belly button.

  • Can your intestines swell?

    Intestines can become swollen from a build up of gas, causing abdominal bloating. Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis) also cause inflammation in the intestines, which is swelling.

  • Can uterine prolapse cause abdominal swelling?

    Abdominal swelling is loosely associated with uterine prolapse. More common symptoms of uterine prolapse—leaking urine, bulging into the vagina, pressure in the lower pelvis, constipation, difficulty inserting a tampon, or low back pain.

  • Does cervical cancer cause swelling of the abdomen?

    Abdominal swelling is not a specific symptom of cervical cancer. Common symptoms for cervical cancer include bleeding and discharge while not on your period, and late stages include pelvic pain.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed
Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Foley A, Burgell R, Barrett JS, Gibson PR. Management Strategies for Abdominal Bloating and DistensionGastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2014;10(9):561–571.

  2. Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The digestive tract: The basics.

  3. Hadjivasilis A, Tsioutis C, Michalinos A, Ntourakis D, Christodoulou DK, Agouridis AP. New insights into irritable bowel syndrome: from pathophysiology to treatment. Ann Gastroenterol Hepatol . 2019;32(6):554-564. doi:10.20524/aog.2019.0428

  4. Office on Women's Health. Pelvic organ prolapse.

  5. Centers for Disease Control. What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?