Health Answers

Over-the-counter anti-gas medications

By Courtney Humphries
Globe Correspondent / June 14, 2010

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Q. Do over-the-counter anti-gas medications work?

A. Though everyone normally produces one to four pints of gas per day, that gas can cause uncomfortable bloating or flatulence. Anti-gas medications promise to relieve gas symptoms by preventing the buildup of gas in the digestive tract.

The most common product ingredient, simethicone, prevents gas bubbles from forming in liquids. But Braden Kuo, director of the GI Motility Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, says, “from most of our experience, we don’t find that they work.’’ Because they’re harmless and cause no side effects, however, Kuo doesn’t advise against using simethicone treatments; it’s best to try them while eating or as soon as possible after. A less common ingredient in anti-gas products is activated charcoal, whose effectiveness is also unproven.

The problem with treating gas, says Kuo, is that “the sensation of gas and bloating isn’t as straightforward as a bunch of bubbles in the GI tract.’’ Though it might seem that having too much air would be a simple problem to solve, Kuo says that gas is actually difficult to treat. There are several possible causes of excessive gas and bloating: an overgrowth of bacteria, a problem with the movement of gas through the digestive tract, a difficulty absorbing certain nutrients like lactose, or simply a sensitivity to gas discomfort.

Kuo says that in cases of chronic gas pain and bloating, it can sometimes help to treat one of the causes: using antibiotics or probiotics to alter levels of bacteria, taking medications designed to treat constipation or irritable bowel syndrome, or avoiding gas-causing foods. Some of the worst dietary culprits are cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower; sugars such as lactose and fructose; most starches; and soluble fiber, found in oats, peas, beans, and fruits. Dietary supplements such as Beano are marketed for use during meals to prevent gas from carbohydrates in foods, but they are not a treatment after symptoms have emerged.

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