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Inguinal hernia

3-minute read

What is an inguinal hernia?

A hernia is where a part of the body protrudes through an abnormal opening in another part of the body, and gets into a space where it doesn’t normally sit.

An inguinal hernia happens when there is a weakness in the muscles at the lower part of the abdomen. Some of the contents of the abdomen have pushed through.

What are the symptoms of an inguinal hernia?

An inguinal hernia is a lump in the groin.

In children, it is usually painless. It may look smaller when the child is relaxed or lying flat, and increase in size when they are crying, coughing or straining.

Adults may experience pain or burning in the groin, or a dull ache or pressure. Men may notice an unusual lump in the scrotum.

What causes an inguinal hernia?

Inguinal hernias are common in children, especially in babies under 6 months. They are more common in boys and in babies who are born prematurely. Children are usually born with the weakness in the muscle that causes the hernia.

In adults, the muscle may weaken over time or due to a sudden strain, for example from lifting a heavy object, straining on the toilet, or coughing.

When should I see my doctor?

All children and adults with a hernia should see a doctor, as there may be complications.

Adults should also see a doctor if their hernia changes or gets worse, they have a fever or they develop new symptoms.

Seek urgent medical attention if your or your child have an inguinal hernia and also experience:

  • severe pain that gets worse
  • the hernia becomes red or purple
  • nausea or vomiting
  • inability to pass a stool (poo) or gas
  • your heartbeat is very fast
  • you have a sudden pain in your scrotum, or the size of the scrotum suddenly changes

How is an inguinal hernia diagnosed?

Your doctor will talk to you and examine your groin. You will probably be asked to cough. You might be asked to have an ultrasound of the groin.

How is an inguinal hernia treated?

Most people will be advised to have surgery as this will reduce the main problem with an inguinal hernia — the hernia might trap the part of the bowel that is poking through the muscles at the lower part of your abdomen.

Can an inguinal hernia be prevented?

You are less likely to have an inguinal hernia if you are a healthy weight, you don’t stand all day or do heavy lifting, and if you quit smoking.

If you have an inguinal hernia, you can prevent symptoms by:

  • avoiding lifting heavy objects
  • avoiding standing for a long time
  • quitting smoking
  • eating high fibre foods to avoid constipation

Complications of an inguinal hernia

A serious complication is if the bowel gets stuck outside the muscle wall. The blood supply can be cut off. This is called a strangulated hernia and is a medical emergency.

Call an ambulance if your child has an inguinal hernia and develops:

  • pain in the groin
  • nausea and vomiting
  • bloated tummy
  • fever
  • tender swelling that is red or pale blue/grey
  • the swelling doesn’t change in size, or remains bulged out when your child has stopped crying or coughing

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2020

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