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About fluid in the abdomen

The medical name for a build up of fluid in the abdomen is ascites (pronounced ay-site-eez).

The tummy (abdomen) contains many organs, including the stomach, bowels, pancreas, liver, spleen and kidneys.

There is a sheet of tissue (peritoneum) around these organs. It is made up of 2 layers. One layer lines the wall of the abdomen. The other covers the organs.

The layers produce a small amount of fluid so that the organs in the abdomen can move smoothly.

Sometimes fluid builds up between the 2 layers, which makes the abdomen swell. This can be very uncomfortable.

This fluid build up is called ascites.

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The causes of ascites

Cancers that can cause ascites include:

  • ovarian cancer
  • breast cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • stomach cancer
  • pancreatic cancer
  • mesothelioma in the peritoneum
  • lung cancer
  • liver cancer
  • womb cancer

Fluid can build up when:

  • cancer cells irritate the lining of the abdomen and make it produce too much fluid
  • lymph glands in the abdomen get blocked and can’t drain fluid properly
  • cancer has spread to the liver and raises the pressure in nearby blood vessels, which forces fluid out
  • the liver can’t make enough blood proteins so fluid leaks out of veins into the abdominal cavity

Other conditions that can cause fluid in the abdomen include:

  • liver disease
  • heart disease

Symptoms

The fluid causes swelling that can make the tummy feel tight and very uncomfortable. It often develops over a few weeks but might happen over a few days.

The fluid causes pressure on other organs in the abdominal area and may lead to:

  • clothes feeling tighter or needing a bigger belt size
  • bloating
  • abdominal pain
  • back pain
  • difficulty sitting comfortably and moving around
  • loss of appetite
  • indigestion
  • constipation
  • needing to pass urine often
  • breathlessness
  • tiredness and weakness (fatigue)

Tests

You might have tests to find the cause of the swelling.

Your doctor examines you and asks about your symptoms. They may also ask you to have:

  • an ultrasound scan
  • blood tests to check your general health and how well your liver and kidneys are working
  • a CT scan
  • a sample of the fluid taken from your abdomen to check for cancer cells or infection

Your doctor puts a needle into your abdomen to take a sample of fluid. They use an ultrasound scan to guide them. This can be uncomfortable but isn’t usually painful.

They use a syringe to draw out some fluid to send to the laboratory. In the lab, they examine it under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

Last reviewed: 
15 Sep 2015
  • Cancer Priniciples & Practice of Oncology (10th edition)

    V T DeVita and others

    Wolters Kluwer (2015)

  • Cancer and its Management (6th edition)

    J Tobias and D Hochhauser 

    Wiley-Blackwell (2005)

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