It's happened to everyone at least once. In an awkward silence on a date, or during your fifth grade clarinet solo, or in the middle of a business presentation, your body suddenly betrays you. You burp. Or your stomach begins to growl and roar. Or worst of all, you have -- to put it delicately -- an outburst of intestinal gas.
But what causes these noisy, embarrassing, and sometimes foul-smelling eruptions? And is there a way to prevent them?
Gas is a great leveler. From the pauper to the king, from the slovenly frat boy to the prim grandmother, everyone has intestinal gas.
"We've all got gas, whether we admit it or not," says C. Mel Wilcox, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and spokesman for the American Gastroenterological Association. "But because everyone is different, some people have more than others."
According to the National Institutes of Health, the average person passes intestinal gas 14 times a day and produces about 1 to 4 pints of the stuff.
That may be more than you expect. Many people who believe that they are excessively gassy actually have perfectly ordinary amounts, says Steven Edmundowicz, MD, chief of endoscopy at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. However, it may be that it's just more distressing -- both emotionally and physically -- to some people than it is to others.
So where does gas come from? There are two major sources: some comes from air that you swallow and the rest is a by-product of digestion.
Eating the Air
For the most part, burping is caused by air that you swallow. Aside from teenage boys engaging in belching contests, most of us don't swallow air on purpose. But eating air is easier to do than you might think. You can increase the chances of swallowing air by:
In addition, any medical condition that might cause you to swallow frequently can increase the amount of air you get into your stomach. For instance, allergies or sinus infections that cause postnasal drip can make you swallow more often. That may increase the amount of gas in your system.