What is ascites?

Ascites is a serious condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of fluid under the lining (peritoneum) of the abdominal cavity that builds up around the abdominal organs. Ascites is characterized by a swollen abdomen and weight gain. This can be accompanied by abdominal pain or discomfort, difficulty breathing, and ankle swelling.

Cirrhosis of the liver is the most common cause of ascites. Cirrhosis of the liver is the development of scar tissue in the liver and permanent damage caused by liver disease, most often by alcoholism. When liver damage and scarring become extensive and cause the liver to become hard, normal blood flow to and from the liver is restricted, resulting in high blood pressure in the portal vein (portal hypertension). The portal vein is one of the largest and most important veins in the abdomen. It brings blood to the liver to be filtered. When portal hypertension occurs, blood backs up and causes fluid (ascites) to leak into the abdominal cavity. Portal hypertension causes other serious complications as well, such as esophageal varices (swollen veins in the esophagus that can rupture and hemorrhage). Ascites itself can cause other serious and life-threatening complications. Those individuals with cirrhosis who do not have portal hypertension do not develop ascites. Scarring of the liver caused by cirrhosis of the liver cannot be reversed or cured. However, following an effective treatment plan may help you slow or stop progression of the disease and prevent or minimize ascites.

Less often, congestive heart failure and kidney failure can also cause ascites. In rare cases, pancreatitis, certain types of cancer, and other conditions can lead to ascites.

Cirrhosis of the liver, the leading cause of ascites, critically affects the liver’s ability to function normally and can result in serious, potentially life-threatening complications, such as portal hypertension, liver failure, hemorrhage, and kidney failure. Seek prompt medical care if you have a history of hepatitis, alcoholism, liver disease, or other chronic diseases, or if you have unexplained symptoms, such as nausea, fatigue, diarrhea or weakness. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce your risk of serious complications.

In addition, if you have cirrhosis of the liver, do not take any supplements, over-the-counter medications, or prescription drugs without consulting your health care provider. The liver may not be able to clear the drugs from the body, which can lead to dangerous, toxic levels of chemicals or substances in the body.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of advanced cirrhosis, liver failure, or other complications of cirrhosis of the liver. Symptoms include inability to produce urine, confusion, shortness of breath, jaundice, heavy rectal bleeding, vomiting blood, or a change in consciousness or alertness.


SYMPTOMS

What are the symptoms of ascites?

The main symptom of ascites is a swollen or distended abdomen due to fluid buildup. Other symptoms may include:

CAUSES

What causes ascites?

Cirrhosis of the liver is the most common cause of ascites. Cirrhosis of the liver is caused by an underlying disease or condition that results in inflammation and the formation of permanent scarring (fibrosis) of liver tissue and hardening of the liver. Permanent liver scarring obstructs and decreases blood flow through the blood vessels to and from the liver. This leads to the development of ... Read more about ascitescauses

TREATMENTS

How is ascites treated?

Treatment for ascites often includes a multifaceted and individualized approach that involves directly treating the excess fluid as well as treating the underlying disease that caused the ascites, such as cirrhosis of the liver, congenital heart disease, or kidney failure. Merely draining the ascites fluid from the ... Read more about ascitestreatments

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 9, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Digestive System


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