Why Seniors Pass Gas, and What You Can Do About It

Flatulence (i.e. farting) can be a troublesome annoyance for caregivers of the elderly. Even if you can get beyond the noise and smell there's always that nagging fear that abnormal bodily functions may be signals of a serious health condition.

Passing gas is typically benign and normal, as long as your loved one isn't experiencing weight loss, diarrhea, abdominal pain or distention, or decreased appetite. These symptoms may signify intestinal malabsorption brought on by a variety of potential causes, including inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, giardia infection, chronic mesenteric ischemia and irritable bowel syndrome. Remedying these medical issues will require a thorough GI workup by your loved one's doctor.

The good news is that flatulence is more often influenced by fixable factors, including:

  • Lactose intolerance: A common issue with a relatively simple solution. First, try removing lactose-containing dairy products from your loved one's diet and see how things go. If they still crave dairy products despite being lactose intolerant, yogurt may be a less problematic option compared to cheese and milk. Lactose-free milk is also available and Lactaid (lactase enzyme) tablets might help to some degree.
  • Fructose intolerance: Another potential cause of flatulence, fructose intolerance can be witnessed after your loved one eats certain fruits, fruit juices, sodas, or substances with high fructose content such as high fructose corn syrup.
  • Foods that can cause gas in just about anyone: If eaten in significant amounts, cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts), legumes (i.e. beans), potatoes, onions, wheat and whole grains can cause gassiness due to the presence of certain indigestible starch products.
  • Medications: Older adults take many medications and polypharmacy in the elderly is a big problem. Flatulence and other digestive issues are common side effects of some commonly prescribed drugs, such as blood pressure medications, certain narcotic pain relievers and antibiotics. Double-check the information provided with your loved one's medications to see if flatulence is listed and talk to their doctor about switching to a more digestion-friendly drug.
  • Swallowing too much air: Dentures and trouble chewing and swallowing food can cause an elder to ingest too much air—which can only be released in the form of gas. While this may not be an entirely preventable problem, it might help to make sure your loved one's dentures fit properly and that they have access to soft, easy-to-eat foods.
  • Slower digestion: Advancing age may cause an elder's digestive process to slow down, resulting in constipation and flatulence. Encouraging a constipated loved one to drink more water and eat fiber-rich foods can help resolve this issue.

Additional strategies for grappling with gas

Besides dietary and lifestyle modifications, there are a limited amount of things you can do about flatulence.

Simethicone (found in common over-the-counter products like Gas-X), Bean-O (alpha-galactosidase), and activated charcoal are typically of little to no benefit.

You may want to try out daily oral probiotics—"good bacteria" normally found in the colon—as they have been shown to help some people after several weeks of use. The success of probiotic treatment for flatulence really depends on the type of strain you get, all of which can be found over-the-counter. Discovering the right strain for your loved one will take a bit of independent research and some trial-and-error.

Probiotics are sometimes taken in conjunction with prebiotics--non-digestible foods that can help probiotic bacteria grow and work more effectively. However, keep in mind that taking a large amount of non-digestible prebiotics can also potentially cause gas. It's all about balance.

Eliminating dietary causes is the first step in dealing with troublesome flatulence. If you desire some kind of "medication" to fix the problem, try probiotics. Just remember, if the gas is accompanied by weight loss, diarrhea, abdominal pain or distention, or decreased appetite, it's important to get your loved one to see a gastroenterologist.

Disclaimer: Though the author of this information is a licensed physician, the information provided above is FOR EDUCATIONAL USE ONLY, and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE MEDICAL ADVICE/OPINION, is not meant to diagnose or treat any illness or disease, and is not a substitute for the medical advice of your (or your loved one's) primary care physician or other medical professional. While striving to be factual and exact, no warranties are made with regards to the accuracy of the information provided above. You are always advised to talk with your (or your loved one's) doctor about any health concerns that you have and about any of the information provided above. Sole reliance on the information provided above is not advised and would be solely at your own risk and liability.

Dr. Vik Rajan, M.D.

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Dr. Vik Rajan is the founder of Houston Patient Advocacy, which provides health information and advocacy to patients and families who have questions about their health, feel lost in the medical system and need guidance, or need assistance with insurance claim denials or medical billing problems.

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