Abdominal aortic aneurysm
An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is a bulge or swelling in the aorta, the main blood vessel that runs from the heart down through the chest and tummy.
An AAA can be dangerous if it isn't spotted early on.
It can get bigger over time and could burst (rupture), causing life-threatening bleeding.
Men aged 65 and over are most at risk of AAAs. This is why men are invited for screening to check for an AAA when they're 65.
Symptoms of an AAA
AAAs don't usually cause any obvious symptoms, and are often only picked up during screening or tests carried out for another reason.
Some people with an AAA have:
- a pulsing sensation in the tummy (like a heartbeat)
- tummy pain that doesn't go away
- lower back pain that doesn't go away
If an AAA bursts, it can cause:
- sudden, severe pain in the tummy or lower back
- sweaty, pale and clammy skin
- a fast heartbeat
- shortness of breath
- fainting or passing out
When to get medical help
Make an appointment to see your GP as soon as possible if you have symptoms, especially if you're at a higher risk of an AAA.
An ultrasound scan of your tummy may be done to check if you have one.
Call 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone else develops symptoms of a burst AAA.
Who's at risk of an AAA
An AAA can form if the sides of the aorta weaken and balloon outwards. It's not always clear why this happens, but there are things that increase the risk.
People at a higher risk of getting an AAA include:
- men aged 65 or over – AAAs are up to six times more common in men than women, and the risk of getting one goes up as you get older
- people who smoke – if you smoke or used to smoke, you're up to 15 times more likely to get an AAA
- people with high blood pressure – high blood pressure can double your risk of getting an AAA
- people with a parent, sibling or child with an AAA – you're about four times more likely to get an AAA if a close relative has had one
Speak to your GP if you're worried you may be at risk of an AAA. They may suggest having a scan to check if you have one and making healthy lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of an AAA.
Treatments for an AAA
The recommended treatment for an AAA depends on how big it is.
Treatment isn't always needed straight away if the risk of an AAA bursting is low.
Treatment for a:
- small AAA (3cm to 4.4cm across) – ultrasound scans are recommended every year to check if it's getting bigger; you'll be advised about healthy lifestyle changes to help stop it growing
- medium AAA (4.5cm to 5.4cm) – ultrasound scans are recommended every three months to check if it's getting bigger; you'll also be advised about healthy lifestyle changes
- large AAA (5.5cm or more) – surgery to stop it getting bigger or bursting is usually recommended
Ask your doctor if you're not sure what size your AAA is.
Read more about treatments for AAAs.
Reducing your risk of an AAA
There are several things you can do to reduce your chances of getting an AAA or help stop one getting bigger.
- stopping smoking – read stop smoking advice and find out about Smokefree, the NHS stop smoking service
- eating healthily – eat a balanced diet and cut down on fatty food
- exercising regularly – aim to do at least 150 minutes of exercise a week; read about how to get started with some common activities
- maintaining a healthy weight – use the healthy weight calculator to see if you might need to lose weight, and find out how to lose weight safely
- cutting down on alcohol – read some tips on cutting down and general advice about alcohol
If you have a condition that increases your risk of an AAA, such as high blood pressure, your GP may also recommend taking tablets to treat this.
Screening for AAAs
In England, screening for AAA is offered to men during the year they turn 65. This can help spot a swelling in the aorta early on, when it can be treated.
The test involves a quick and painless ultrasound scan to see how big your aorta is.
If you're a man over 65 and you haven't been screened, you can request a test by contacting your local AAA screening service directly.
Women and men under 65 aren't routinely invited for screening. But if you think you might have a higher risk of an AAA, talk to your GP about the possibility of having a scan.
Read more about screening for an AAA.