Ascites

  • Medical Author:
    Siamak N. Nabili, MD, MPH

    Dr. Nabili received his undergraduate degree from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), majoring in chemistry and biochemistry. He then completed his graduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His graduate training included a specialized fellowship in public health where his research focused on environmental health and health-care delivery and management.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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When should I call my doctor about ascites?

People with ascites should be routinely followed by their primary physician and any specialists that may be involved in their care. Gastroenterologists (specialists in gastrointestinal diseases) and hepatologist (liver specialists) commonly see patients with ascites due to liver disease. Other specialists can also care for patients with ascites based on the possible cause and the underlying condition. The specialists usually ask the patient to first contact their primary physician if ascites increase. If ascites is causing symptoms of shortness of breath, abdominal discomfort ,or inability to do normal daily tasks such as walking, the patient's primary doctor should be notified.

How is ascites diagnosed?

The diagnosis of ascites is based on physical examination in conjunction with a detailed medical history to ascertain the possible underlying causes since ascites is often considered a nonspecific symptom for other diseases. If ascites fluid is greater than 500ml, it can be demonstrated on physical examination by bulging flanks and fluid waves performed by the doctor examining the abdomen. Smaller amounts of fluid may be detected by an ultrasound of the abdomen. Occasionally, ascites is found incidentally by an ultrasound or a CT scan done for evaluating other conditions.

Diagnosis of underlying conditions causing ascites is the most important part of understanding the reason for a person to develop ascites. The medical history may provide clues to the underlying cause and typically includes questions about previous diagnosis of liver disease, viral hepatitis infection and its risk factors, alcohol abuse, family history of liver disease, heart failure, cancer history, and medication history.

Blood work can play an essential role in evaluating the cause of ascites. A complete metabolic panel can detect patterns of liver injury, functional status of the liver and kidney, and electrolyte levels. A complete blood count is also useful by providing clues to underlying conditions. Coagulation (clotting) panel abnormalities (prothrombin time) may be abnormal because of liver dysfunction and inadequate production of clotting proteins.

Sometimes the possible underlying causes of ascites may not be determined based on the history, examination, and review of laboratory data and imaging studies. Analysis of the fluid may be necessary in order to obtain further diagnostic data. This procedure is called paracentesis, and it is performed by trained physicians. It involves sterilizing an area on the abdomen and, with the guidance of ultrasound, inserting a needle into the abdominal cavity and withdrawing fluid for further analysis.

For diagnostic purposes, a small amount (20cc, less than a tablespoon, for example) may be enough for adequate testing. Larger amounts of up to a few liters (large volume paracentesis) can be withdrawn if needed to relieve symptoms associated with abdominal ascites.

The analysis is done by sending the collected fluid to the laboratory promptly after drainage. Typically, the number and components of white blood cells and red blood cells (cell count), albumin level, gram stain and culture for any possible organisms, amylase level, glucose, total protein, and cytology (study of any cells in the fluid looking for malignant or cancerous cells) are analyzed in the laboratory. The results are then analyzed by the treating doctor for further evaluation and determination of the possible cause of ascites.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/24/2016

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