Gas and gas pains can strike at the worst possible moment — during an important meeting or on a crowded elevator. Although passing intestinal gas (flatus) usually isn’t serious, it can be embarrassing.
Anything that causes intestinal gas or is associated with constipation or diarrhea can lead to gas pains. These pains generally occur when gas builds up in your intestines, and you’re not able to expel it. Most people pass gas at least 10 times a day.
The good news is that although you can’t stop gas and gas pains, a few simple measures can help reduce the amount of gas you produce and relieve your discomfort and embarrassment.
Gas forms when bacteria in your colon ferment carbohydrates that aren’t digested in your small intestine. Unfortunately, healthy, high-fiber foods are often the worst offenders. Fiber has many health benefits, including keeping your digestive tract in good working order and regulating blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But fiber can also lead to the formation of gas.
High-fiber foods that commonly cause gas and gas pains include:
- Whole grains
- Beans and peas (legumes)
Fiber supplements containing psyllium, such as Metamucil, may cause such problems, especially if added to your diet too quickly. Carbonated beverages, such as soda and beer, also cause gas.
Other causes of excess gas include:
- Swallowed air. You swallow air every time you eat or drink. You may also swallow air when you’re nervous, eat too fast, chew gum, suck on candies or drink through a straw. Some of that air finds its way into your lower digestive tract.
- Another health condition. Excess gas may be a symptom of a more serious chronic condition. Examples include diverticulitis or an inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Excess gas and bloating may also be a symptom of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine from conditions such as diabetes.
- Food intolerances. If your gas and bloating occur mainly after eating dairy products, it may be because your body isn’t able to break down the sugar (lactose) in dairy foods. Other food intolerances, especially to gluten — a protein found in wheat and some other grains — also can result in excess gas, diarrhea and even weight loss.
- Artificial additives. It’s also possible that your system can’t tolerate artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol, found in some sugar-free foods, gums and candies. Many healthy people develop gas and diarrhea when they consume these sweeteners.
- Constipation. Constipation may make it difficult to pass gas, leading to bloating and discomfort.
For most people, the signs and symptoms of gas and gas pain are all too obvious. They include:
- Voluntary or involuntary passing of gas, either as belches or as flatus.
- Sharp, jabbing pains or cramps in your abdomen. These pains may occur anywhere in your abdomen and can change locations quickly and get better quickly.
- A ‘knotted’ feeling in your abdomen.
- Swelling and tightness in your abdomen (bloating).
Sometimes, gas pains may be constant or so intense that it feels like something is seriously wrong.
Gas can sometimes be mistaken for:
- Heart disease
When to see a doctor
It’s considered normal to pass gas as flatus between 10 and 20 times a day. That amount varies from day to day, however.
Call your doctor if your gas is accompanied by:
- Prolonged abdominal pain
- Bloody stools
- A change in stool color or frequency
- Weight loss
- Chest pain
- Persistent or recurrent nausea or vomiting
In addition, talk to your doctor if your gas or gas pains are so persistent or severe that they interfere with your ability to live a normal life. In most cases, treatment can help reduce or alleviate the problem.