Flatulence (i.e. farting) can be a troublesome occupational hazard for caregivers of the elderly. Even if you can dismiss the noise and ignore the smell, there’s always that nagging fear that excess gas may indicate a messy accident or even a serious digestive problem.
What Causes Flatulence in the Elderly
Fortunately for most seniors, passing gas is typically benign and normal. Slight changes in digestion are relatively normal as we age, but there are some symptoms to look for that may indicate an underlying medical issue. If your loved one’s flatulence is accompanied by weight loss, diarrhea, abdominal pain or distention, or decreased appetite, it’s important to make an appointment with their doctor. These symptoms may signify intestinal malabsorption brought on by a variety of potential causes, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, chronic mesenteric ischemia or irritable bowel syndrome. Remedying these and other underlying digestive conditions will require a thorough gastrointestinal workup.
The good news is that flatulence is more often caused by less serious and more easily treated factors. Some of the following conditions could be responsible for your loved one’s excessive “wind.”
- Lactose intolerance: This is a common issue with a relatively simple solution. First, try removing lactose-containing dairy products from your loved one’s diet for a week or so and see if things improve. 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 and other dairy products are also available. Lactaid (lactase enzyme) tablets might help them digest their favorite dairy items to some degree as well.
- Fructose intolerance: Symptoms of fructose sensitivity can be witnessed after your loved one eats certain fruits, products containing fruit juice, or foods that contain high fructose corn syrup like soda.
- Foods that can cause gas in just about anyone: If eaten in significant amounts, cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts), legumes (e.g. beans and lentils), potatoes, onions, wheat and whole grains can cause gassiness due to the presence of fiber and certain indigestible starches.
- Medications: Older adults take many medications, and digestive issues like flatulence are common side effects of some commonly prescribed drugs. Culprits include blood pressure medications, certain narcotic pain relievers and antibiotics. Check your loved one’s medication inserts 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 difficulty chewing and swallowing food (known as dysphagia) can cause an elder to accidentally swallow air during normal activities, which is then released as 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 tract to slow down, resulting in constipation and flatulence. If constipation is also an issue, encourage your loved one to drink more water and eat fiber-rich foods.
Additional Strategies for Minimizing Gas
Dietary and lifestyle modifications are the best ways to eliminate this issue. Simethicone (found in common over-the-counter products like Gas-X), Bean-O (alpha-galactosidase) and activated charcoal are typically ineffective as a long-term solution. If your loved one is experiencing discomfort and bloating, oral probiotics may be a useful addition to their daily routine.
The underlying issue may be that there is a deficit of “good bacteria” that normally lives in the colon. The success of probiotic treatment for flatulence really depends on the probiotic strain. There is a wide variety of types, or strains, of bacteria that support good digestive health. Discovering the right combination of strains for your loved one will take a bit of independent research and some trial and error, but all are available over the counter.
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 prebiotics can also cause gas to worsen. It’s all about balance.
Eliminating dietary triggers is the first step in dealing with troublesome flatulence. If your loved one isn’t uncomfortable or bothered by these digestive symptoms, then a “fix” may not be necessary. Many seniors simply aren’t as aware or in control of their bodily functions compared to younger generations. Just be sure to keep an eye out for other more serious symptoms that might point to an underlying digestive problem.