Ascites is when fluid fills the space between the lining of the abdomen and the organs. It usually occurs when the liver stops working properly...

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When fluid builds up inside the abdomen, it is known as ascites. Ascites usually occurs when the liver stops working properly. Fluid fills the space between the lining of the abdomen and the organs.

People with ascites only have a five-year survival rate of 30 to 40 percent. If you experience ascites symptoms, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

Ascites Causes and Risk Factors

Ascites is most often caused by liver scarring. This increases pressure inside the liver’s blood vessels. The increased pressure can force fluid into the abdominal cavity, causing ascites.

Liver damage is the biggest risk factor for ascites. Some causes of liver damage include:

  • cirrhosis
  • hepatitis B or C
  • a history of alcohol use

Other conditions that may increase your risk of ascites include:

  • ovarian, pancreatic, liver, or endometrial cancer
  • heart or kidney failure
  • pancreatitis
  • tuberculosis

Symptoms of Ascites

Symptoms of ascites can appear either slowly or suddenly. It depends on the cause of the fluid buildup. They include:

  • sudden weight gain
  • a distended abdomen
  • difficulty breathing when laying down
  • diminished appetite
  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • nausea and vomiting
  • heartburn

Many ascites symptoms can also be caused by other conditions. They do not always signal an emergency. However, you should talk to your doctor if you are at risk for ascites and experience any of its symptoms.

Diagnosing Ascites

Diagnosing ascites takes multiple steps. Your doctor will first check for swelling in your abdomen. Then he will probably use imaging to look for fluid. Abdominal imaging might include an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI. Blood tests, laparoscopy, and angiography can also be used to diagnose ascites.

Treatment for Ascites

Treatment for ascites depends on what is causing your condition.


Diuretics are a common way to treat this condition. They reduce the pressure within the veins around the liver. In other words, they treat the cause of ascites.

Diuretics are used to treat ascites. While you are on diuretics, your doctor may want to monitor your blood chemistry. You will probably need to reduce your alcohol use and salt intake.


This procedure uses a thin, long needle to remove the excess fluid. It is inserted through the skin and into the abdominal cavity. Because of this, there is a risk of infection. You may be prescribed antibiotics.

This treatment is usually used when cancer is causing the ascites. Diuretics do not work as well in cancer patients. Their fluid buildup is usually not caused by liver damage.


In extreme cases, a permanent tube called a shunt is implanted in the body. It reroutes blood flow around the liver.

Liver transplant may also be recommended if ascites does not respond to treatment. It is generally used for end-stage liver disease.

Preventing Ascites

Ascites can not be prevented. However, you can lower your risk by protecting your liver. To do this:

  • Drink alcohol only in moderation. This can help prevent cirrhosis.
  • Get vaccinated for hepatitis B.
  • Always practice safe sex. Hepatitis can be spread sexually.
  • Avoid intravenous drug use. Hepatitis can also be transmitted through shared needles.
  • Be aware of the potential side effects of your medications. If liver damage is a risk, talk to your doctor about whether your liver function should be tested.
Written by: Carmella Wint and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George Krucik, MD
Published: Aug 16, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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