How to Get Rid of Gas

Why do we pass gas, and what can we do about it?

Rob Lamberts, MD,
May 15, 2013
Episode #070

How to Get Rid of Gas

For some reason, my readers seem fascinated with embarrassing subjects.  The single most popular article I’ve written is the one on bad breath.  My April series on embarrassing subjects was also quiet popular.  I am a little worried what this says about people who are drawn to me.  I suppose the simple fact that they spend their time reading my stuff puts them out of the norm.

Regardless of the reason, I will pander to the masses, and cover another embarrassing topic--one that is the fascination of many young boys and college students through the ages.  Yes, today I am covering gas - specifically, the gas that people blame on their dogs: flatus.

Got Gas?

When people come to me complaining of having “too much gas,” they are probably focused on one of three symptoms:
    1.    Bloating of the abdomen
    2.    Belching
    3.    Flatulence.

Though folks are definitely interested in the fist two types of gas, what really brings people to see me in the office is the last one: flatulence.  To give this fascinating topic its due, I will leave the first two to future articles and focus on the last, and most socially significant one.  That is fine with me because I not only have very low personal standards, but I find it extremely important to help my readers end their social isolation.  I also want to be able to ride in an elevator with them.

Focus on Flatulence

Flatus, or passing gas out of the rectum has a unique status in medicine, being the bodily function that has more euphemisms than any other.  They are called toots, pooters, passing gas, cutting the cheese, breaking wind, trouser trumpet, farts, and, of course, stepping on a barking spider.  Just for fun, I will put a list of them at the end of this transcript.  Please keep the list away from any middle-school boys.  I also included a classic description of differing types of flatus from a prominent medical textbook that is, well, not typical of medical textbooks.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way (or cleared the air), I need to answer the following questions: What is flatus made of, what is it from, what makes it worse, and is there any way to make it better.

How Often Do People Fart?

The average person passes between 500 and 1500 ml of gas from their rectum each day.  That translates to 1/2 quart to nearly 1/2 gallon of gas each day.  Most of this passes innocently and without notice of even the guilty party.  Some people seem to pass more than others (and some are proud of that fact).  Certain foods and medical conditions can alter this volume significantly.  I knew a guy in college, who...never mind.

What Causes Gas?

The composition of flatus is not too far from that of the outside world: it is mainly nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide.  Methane gas, a byproduct of the digestion of food, is also present in small quantities.  So where do all of these gasses come from?  The majority of intestinal gas is swallowed by the individual.  Eating, chewing gum, and smoking are all things that increase the swallowing of air.  Some folks swallow air when they are anxious, which of course results in increased output of gas, which could lead to social isolation and, of course, anxiety.

Why Does Gas Smell?

Gas is also produced by the creative genius of the bacteria in the large intestine, who take food we eat and turn it into methane and the more odoriferous substances for which flatus is notorious. If flatus was just expelling of these gasses, nobody would be too interested in this subject.  The real problem comes with some of the other gasses present in very small qualities.  These gasses are made up of compounds containing sulfur, which when combined with hydrogen creates hydrogen sulfide, the substance that produces the “rotten egg” odor. 

The bacteria get their raw material—that leads to the less than pleasant smell--through changes in the environment of the colon. Any of the following can be responsible for smelly gas:

Changes in how fast things move through the intestines--diarrhea or constipation can either let things hang out in the colon too long, or let food get into the colon before it’s digested.

Changes in the population of bacteria of the colon, through use of antibiotics.

Malabsorption conditions, such as lactose intolerance, ingestion of too much sorbitol (a substance that is in sugarless candy), and certain infections.

Increased intake of soluble fiber and complex sugars (the Nutrition Diva did a good episode on gas-causing foods).

Certain foods (like pork) have a huge effect on the aroma even though they don’t increase the amount of gas produced.

How to Get Rid of Gas

So what can be done for the sufferer and the many co-sufferers?  Here are my quick and dirty tips on coping with gaseous emissions:

Tip 1: Keep a food diary. Beans are famous for causing childhood entertainment, but many other foods can cause gas too.  A sudden increase in fiber intake, while it may be healthy, can make it very dangerous to take long rides in the car (especially with others in the car).  Write down what you are eating and see if you can find the culprit.

Tip 2: Consider a medical approach. Activated charcoal pills may be helpful in absorbing gas--especially the foul-smelling kind.  Adding Beano to your food--especially if it is rich in vegetables--can reduce the gas the food produces (although it must be taken along with the food).  Other medications, such as simethicone (found in Gas-X and other OTC products) have limited benefit, but it doesn’t hurt to try them.

Tip 3: The nuclear option. If all else fails (and I am not kidding about this), there are charcoal-lined seat cushions and even charcoal-lined underwear for those whose problem is unfixable. 

Tip 4: Consider others. The Modern Manners Guy did a great article about the polite ways to pass gas.  Of course, you should always avoid elevators if you have a problem with gas, and perhaps consider buying a convertible or moving to the country.

As always, your doctor should be able to help you figure out if there is anything more serious going on.  Persistent diarrhea, significant changes to your bowel habits, and weight loss are signs that other more serious problems may exist.

If you have topics that you want me to cover, send them to housecalldoctor@quickanddirtytips.com, or you can submit them to me on twitter (@housecalldoc) or my Facebook page.

Let me once again remind you that this podcast is for informational purposes only.  My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.

Catch you next time!  Stay Healthy!

Here’s the promised list (from Goofball.com)

    1.    Anal Salute
    2.    Beep your horn
    3.    Blast the chair
    4.    Blat
    5.    Blow Mud
    6.    Blow the big brown horn
    7.    Bottom blast
    8.    Bottom burp
    9.    Break wind
    10.  Butt burp
    11.  Butt trumpet
    12.  Butt tuba
    13.  Buttock bassoon
    14.  Cut a stinker
    15.  Cut the cheese
    16.  Cut the wind
    17.  Drop a bomb
    18.  Fart
    19.  Flatulate
    20.  Flatulence
    21.  Float an air biscuit
    22.  Funky rollers
    23.  Gaseous intestinal by-products
    24.  HUMrrhoids
    25.  Honk
    26.  Let a Beefer
    27.  Let each little bean be heard
    28.  Mating call of the barking spider
    29.  Mexican jet propulsion
    30.  One-gun salute
    31.  Pass gas
    32.  Pass wind
    33.  Poot
    34.  Puff, the Magic Dragon!
    35.  Rebuild the ozone layer one poof at a time
    36.  Rectal honk
    37.  Rectal shout
    38.  Ripple Fart
    39.  Shoot the cannon
    40.  Singe the [noun] (e.g. carpet)
    41.  Step on a duck
    42.  The colonic calliope
    43.  The gluteal tuba
    44.  Toot your own horn
    45.  Trouser cough
    46.  Trouser trumpet

There are many more I can think of (most notably, the SBD - silent but deadly).  If you have more you would like to enlighten us with, visit my Facebook page.

As a bonus, here is an excerpt from the Merck Manual of Medicine, a respected medical textbook.  It seems they employed middle-school aged boys at some point.  Enjoy:

Flatulence, which can cause great psychosocial distress, is unofficially described according to its salient characteristics:
(1) the "slider" (crowded elevator type) , which is released slowly and noiselessly, sometimes with devastating effect;

(2) the open sphincter, or "pooh" type, which is said to be of higher temperature and more aromatic;

(3) the staccato or drumbeat type, pleasantly passed in privacy; and

(4) the "bark" type (described in a personal communication) is characterized by a sharp exclamatory eruption that effectively interrupts (and often concludes) conversation. Aromaticity is not a prominent feature. Rarely, this usually distressing symptom has been turned to advantage, as with a Frenchman referred to as "Le Petomane," who became affluent as an effluent performer who played tunes with the gas from his rectum on the Moulin Rouge stage.

Flatulence and Bad Smell images from Shutterstock