Ascites

Definition

Ascites is excess fluid in the space between the tissues lining the abdomen and abdominal organs (the peritoneal cavity).

Alternative Names

Portal hypertension - ascites

Causes

A person with ascites usually has severe liver disease. Ascites due to liver disease is caused by high pressure in the blood vessels of the liver (portal hypertension) and low albumin levels.

Disorders that may be associated with ascites include:

Kidney dialysis may also be associated with ascites.

Exams and Tests

A physical examination may reveal a swollen abdomen, or belly.

Test to evaluate the liver may be done. This may include:

Paracentesis or abdominal tap may be performed. This procedure involves using a thin needle to pull fluid from the abdomen. The fluid is tested in various ways to determine the cause of ascites.

Treatment

The condition that causes ascites will be treated, if possible.

Treatment may include:

  • Diuretics, or “water pills,” to help remove the fluid; usually, spironolactone (Aldactone) is used at first, and then furosemide (Lasix) will be added
  • Antibiotics, if an infection develops
  • Limiting salt in the diet (no more than 1,500 mg/day of sodium)
  • Avoiding drinking alcohol

Procedures used for ascites that do not respond to medical treatment include:

  • Placing a tube into the area to remove large volumes of fluid (called a large volume paracentesis)
  • Transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS), which helps reroute blood around the liver

As patients develop end-stage liver disease, and the ascites no longer respond to treatment, liver transplantation becomes necessary.

Possible Complications

  • Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (a life-threatening infection of the ascites fluid)
  • Hepatorenal syndrome (kidney failure)
  • Weight loss and protein malnutrition
  • Mental confusion, change in the level of alertness, or coma (hepatic encephalopathy)
  • Other complications of liver cirrhosis

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Anyone who has ascites and develops new abdominal pain and fever should contact their health care provider immediately.

References

Runyon BA; AASLD Practice Guidelines Committee. Management of adult patients with ascites due to cirrhosis: an update. Hepatology. 2009;49(6):2087-2107.


Review Date: 10/13/2009
Reviewed By: George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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