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Discover the causes, symptoms, and treatments of ascites, a potentially serious abdominal condition that demands immediate attention.

USMLE Guide: Ascites


Ascites refers to the abnormal accumulation of fluid within the peritoneal cavity, causing abdominal distension. It is a common clinical finding associated with various medical conditions, particularly liver disease. This USMLE guide aims to provide an overview of ascites, including its etiology, pathophysiology, clinical presentation, diagnosis, and management.


Ascites can arise from numerous causes, including:

  • Cirrhosis: Most common cause, accounting for approximately 80% of cases.
  • Malignancies: Liver, ovarian, pancreatic, and gastric cancers can lead to ascites.
  • Heart failure: Right-sided heart failure can cause fluid accumulation in the liver and subsequently in the peritoneal cavity.
  • Nephrotic syndrome: Protein loss from the kidneys can lead to hypoalbuminemia and fluid retention.
  • Infectious causes: Tuberculosis, peritoneal infections, and fungal infections can result in ascites.
  • Portal vein thrombosis: Obstruction of the portal vein can lead to increased pressure in the liver and ascites formation.


The development of ascites involves several mechanisms:

  1. Portal hypertension: Increased resistance to blood flow through the portal system leads to increased hydrostatic pressure within the liver, promoting the transudation of fluid into the peritoneal cavity.
  2. Hypoalbuminemia: Decreased synthesis of albumin in liver disease or increased loss in renal disease reduces plasma oncotic pressure, favoring fluid extravasation.
  3. Sodium and water retention: Activation of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system and increased secretion of antidiuretic hormone (ADH) contribute to sodium and water retention, adding to the fluid overload.

Clinical Presentation

Patients with ascites may present with the following manifestations:

  • Abdominal distension and increased girth
  • Dyspnea and orthopnea due to diaphragmatic compression
  • Anorexia, early satiety, and weight loss
  • Lower extremity edema (dependent edema)
  • shifting dullness on abdominal examination
  • Fluid wave test positivity


The diagnosis of ascites involves a combination of clinical evaluation and investigations, including:

  1. Physical examination: abdominal examination for fluid wave and shifting dullness.
  2. Laboratory investigations: ascitic fluid analysis (cell count, albumin, protein, culture) can help determine the underlying cause.
  3. Imaging: Abdominal ultrasound is the initial imaging modality of choice for evaluating ascites, assessing liver size, and detecting focal lesions.
  4. Additional tests: Liver function tests, renal function tests, coagulation profile, and serum protein electrophoresis may be performed based on clinical suspicion.


The management of ascites aims to treat the underlying cause, relieve symptoms, and prevent complications. Key management strategies include:

  1. Dietary modification: Sodium restriction (usually <2 g/day) helps reduce fluid retention in patients with ascites.
  2. Diuretics: Spironolactone and furosemide are commonly used in combination for volume control and mobilization of ascitic fluid.
  3. Paracentesis: Large-volume paracentesis may be performed to relieve symptoms and obtain diagnostic samples.
  4. Transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS): In refractory ascites, TIPS can be considered to reduce portal hypertension and ascitic fluid formation.
  5. Liver transplantation: Patients with end-stage liver disease and refractory ascites may require liver transplantation.


Ascites is a common clinical finding associated with various medical conditions, particularly liver disease. Understanding the etiology, pathophysiology, clinical presentation, diagnosis, and management of ascites is essential for medical professionals preparing for the USMLE. By following this comprehensive guide, you will be well-equipped to answer questions and provide appropriate patient care related to ascites.

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