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What Is Ascites? - Definition, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Ascites is a serious medical condition characterized by excess fluid in the abdomen as a result of liver damage. Learn about the definition, causes, symptoms, and treatment for ascites. Updated: 10/14/2021

?!!!What Is Ascites?

Ascites is a medical condition that causes excess fluids to build up in the abdomen, in the space around the organs. A small amount of fluid in this space is normal, but excess fluid causes problems. Ascites most commonly happens when the liver fails to function properly, and it's seen in patients with cirrhosis. The condition gets its name from the composition of the fluid - typically, it's very protein-rich, which is called ascitic. Unfortunately, ascites is a serious health condition, and only approximately 30-40% of people survive the 5-year period after diagnosis.

Causes

The main cause of ascites are problems with the liver. When the liver becomes damaged, it begins to leak ascitic fluid into the abdominal space, where the liquid accumulates. Cirrhosis is a liver disorder caused by excessive alcohol consumption or viral hepatitis that can result in ascites, though there are other conditions that can also lead to ascites. Some of these conditions include various cancers, heart failure, kidney failure, infections of the pancreas, or tuberculosis. These conditions tend to be chronic (long-lasting) rather than acute (short-term).

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  • 0:00 What is Ascites?
  • 0:41 Causes
  • 1:17 Symptoms
  • 1:36 Treatment
  • 2:59 Lesson Summary
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Symptoms

Extra fluids in the abdomen can put pressure on the surrounding organs. This may cause difficulty breathing, especially when lying down, and abdominal pain. Sometimes patients will experience rapid weight gain and have a distended or bloated midsection along with a lack of appetite, heartburn, nausea, and vomiting.

Treatment

Diagnosing ascites requires multiple steps. First, it has to be ascertained that the belly is distended or swollen. Then an imaging technique, such as an ultrasound or CT scan, may be used to look for fluids. Blood tests may also be done. If diagnosed with ascites, one of the first treatment options is the use of diuretics. Diuretics promote the production of urine and help deplete the body of excess fluid. Typically, the patient then also needs to reduce their salt and alcohol intake while taking diuretics.

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