Can Flatulence Be a Sign of Disease?

5 myths about gas that deserve debunking

Woman suffering from abdominal pain. France
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Although it's not something people commonly discuss, flatulence is a completely normal part of digestion. Gas is the natural byproduct of the process wherein bacteria in the intestines break down sugars and polysaccharides as they enter the colon.

You can also collect gas during the day as you swallow air when laughing, drinking from a straw, or chewing gum. All told, the average, healthy adult can break wind as often as 21 times per day.

While you will definitely want to see a doctor if excessive flatulence is accompanied by pain, bloating, cramping, and bloody stools, passing gas – even explosively so – is not considered a problem. More often than not, it is simply related to something you ate, drank, or did during the day.

Here are five other flatulence myths that deserve debunking:

1. Stinky Gas Is a Sign of Illness

If your flatulence is foul-smelling, there is a good chance that it's related to something you ate. Foods such as meat, eggs, cabbage, onions, and garlic can increase both the amount and "smelliness" of your gas. The same applies to any foods that are excessively fatty.

Similarly, eating or drinking dairy products (such as milk, cheese, or yogurt) can create sulfurous odors if you are lactose intolerant. Constipation can also trigger off-putting smells by increasing the fermentation process of foods in the digestive tract.

2. Women Don't Pass as Much Gas as Men

Just like men, women have digestive tracts that produce gas. Despite what a female friend may tell you, women pass just as much gas as men.

However, like many old wives tales, myths like these often stem from a kernel of truth. The fact is that many diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, including colon cancer, are more predominant in men and are usually accompanied by excessive flatulence and bloating. If these types of symptoms persist and are accompanied by pain, fatigue, weight loss, and bloody stools, see your doctor as soon as possible.

3. Explosive Flatulence Is a Sign of Colorectal Disease

While explosive flatulence is really not a problem, explosive diarrhea is. Explosive diarrhea may be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

In most cases, explosive flatulence is simply related to the amount of gas that has built up in the rectum. The reason for this may be based on everything from physiology (how much gas a person can hold) to the strength of the anal sphincter muscles.

On the other hand, if you feel persistent pressure and a noticeable fullness in the rectum even when vacant, speak with your doctor. This may be a sign of rectal cancer.

4. Painful Flatulence Is a Symptom of Cancer

Painful flatulence can be considered concerning if accompanied by other symptoms of colorectal cancer. However, in most cases, the pain will be linked to a localized irritation. Oftentimes, something an innocuous as gas can cause pain if there is an anal fissure, hemorrhoids, or even irritation caused by prolonged diarrhea. If uncertain, don't be shy. See your doctor and have it checked out.

5. It's Not Healthy to Pass a Lot of Gas

Passing a lot of gas may be embarrassing, but there's no reason to think it will cause you any harm. Moreover, just because a person makes a lot of noise doesn't mean that he or she is producing more gas than anyone else. Oftentimes, gas will leak through the anal sphincter without any sound or even feeling, especially during sleep. So, if you think you're making a lot of gas, it's probably because you're simply hearing or feeling it more.

On the other hand, it may not be healthy to retain your gas. Holding it back can lead to bloating, rectal pain, and, in extreme cases, distention of the colon. So, if you're worried about the sound or smell of your gas, don't hold it. Simply excuse yourself and go to the next room.

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Article Sources
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "Gas in the Digestive Tract." Bethesda, Maryland; updated June 28, 2017.