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Ascites is the buildup of excess fluid in the abdominal cavity.



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Ascites can be caused by:

  • High blood pressure in the liver's portal venous system, which can be caused by:
    • Liver damage called cirrhosis (most common cause)
    • Heart failure
    • Blockage of the large vein in the abdomen called the vena cava
  • Malnutrition or other conditions leading to low amounts of protein in the blood
  • Certain cancers
  • Infections, such as certain bacteria and parasites, or tuberculosis that can invade the abdomen
  • Pancreatitis
  • Kidney disease
  • Abdominal leakage of lymph fluid
Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of ascites include having any of the conditions above.


Symptoms may include:

  • Increased abdominal girth
  • Shortness of breath
  • Abdominal pain and/or distention
  • Pain on the side of the abdomen
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Difficulty breathing while lying flat
  • Decreased appetite
  • Heartburn

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Tests to determine cause may include:

Imaging tests look for the amount and distribution of fluid, and evaluate abdominal structures. These may include:


Some treatments will vary according to what is causing the ascites. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Some options include:

Dietary Changes
  • Sodium restriction—Limiting salt intake to 2,000 mg (milligrams) per day or fewer is often recommended to reduce or delay fluid buildup. More extreme restrictions in salt intake do not help.
  • Fluid restriction—If sodium level is too low.
  • Alcohol restriction—Ascites commonly occurs in people who have liver disease. Consuming excess alcohol can further impair liver function. Stopping alcohol use may limit the progression of ascites.

Diuretic medications cause the kidneys to excrete more sodium and water in the urine. These medications are often recommended as the treatment of choice for ascites, along with sodium restriction.


Ascites can be treated by inserting a hollow needle into the abdomen and removing excess fluid through the needle.


If the other treatments are not effective and the ascites keep coming back, surgery can be done to divert blood away from the liver. If this is not successful, a liver transplant may be necessary.


To help reduce the chance of ascites:

  • Drink alcohol only in moderation. This means no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 per day for men.
  • Practice safe sex to avoid hepatitis.
  • Do not share IV needles.
  • Get vaccinated for hepatitis B.
  • If you are taking medications that can damage your liver, follow your doctor's instructions closely.


American Liver Foundation

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


Canadian Liver Foundation

Health Canada


Ascites. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated July 1, 2014. Accessed September 27, 2016.

Ascites: A common problem in people with cirrhosis. American College of Gastroenterology website. Available at: Updated July 2013. Accessed February 22, 2016.

Cirrhosis. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: Updated April 2014. Accessed February 22, 2016.

Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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