Having a stomach ache can be frustrating and confusing. While they’re common, symptoms can be hard to describe. Oftentimes, you’ll feel better and move on without ever knowing the cause. Other times, it might seem like the stomach pains last forever.
There are a million harmless reasons you might hear “my stomach hurts” from your child (or mutter it yourself) and a handful of reasons that are worrisome – let’s break them down.
There are many things that can cause stomach aches. Depending on the type of pain or the location of pain, your doctor can help sort things out for you or your child. Let’s highlight some possible causes in the meantime.
Also known as a stomach virus or the stomach flu. If you’re experiencing diarrhea or nausea and vomiting with your stomach pains, it could be this. It’s most often caused by a virus you ingested via contaminated food or water. Stay hydrated and get some extra rest - your body will get rid of the virus within 2-7 days, depending on which bug you’ve caught.
Food poisoning is caused by eating plants, mushrooms or contaminated fish or meat containing a toxin. Unlike the stomach virus, food poisoning is not contagious. Once you clear your system of the toxin (usually by vomiting), you should recover quite quickly - within 1-2 days. The sooner you can rehydrate, the sooner you will recover so keep sipping whatever fluid you can tolerate!
This is very common in our kiddos, often as a result of their diet and/or stress caused by life changes like potty training or the arrival of a new sibling. If you suspect it’s related more to your child’s diet, increase fluid intake and add fiber (fruits and veggies).
Constipation can happen in adults too, of course. Increase fiber, fluids and exercise!
This is also referred to as reflux, gastrointestinal reflux (GER), gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) or heartburn. In infants, this manifests as spitting up or vomiting. In adults, it manifests as abdominal pain or chest pain. Infants will often outgrow this; holding them upright for 20-30 minutes after feedings should help. For older children or adults, certain foods can trigger indigestion - keep a food diary to narrow it down and avoid those foods. Avoid caffeine, smoking and eating 2-3 hours before bed.
Minerals in our urine can create crystals, which can then create stones. Depending on where the stone is located, it’s either a kidney stone, a ureteral stone or a bladder stone. The symptoms can be excruciating pain in the lower abdomen, between the ribs and hips or the back. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, sweating, restlessness, chills, fever, burning with urination or blood in the urine.
I am fully aware how scary this all sounds - my apologies. Some stones are very small and people don’t experience the same level of pain described. Hydration and pain relief will be your focus while your doc figures out if you’ll be able to pee out the stone or if you’ll need it removed with a procedure.
Lactose intolerant people lack the digestive enzyme lactase, which is necessary for breaking down lactose, the sugar found in dairy products. This means some (or all) dairy products can irritate your stomach, causing diarrhea, bloating, cramps and/or nausea. Avoid dairy products or take a lactase enzyme supplement.
Ulcers develop when the lining of the stomach is weakened, making it more likely to be damaged by stomach acid. The location of pain depends on the type of ulcer but the most common symptom is pain in the upper abdomen.Stomach ulcers are usually caused by an infection or overusing NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen). If you’re on a new medication, try having a light snack before you take it to see if that resolves the problem; if you’re taking any NSAIDs, stop them (discuss with your doctor if it’s a medication s/he has recommended you take).
Irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder in which the digestive tract seems to be very sensitive to stimuli. Symptoms include constipation or diarrhea, change in stool consistency, dull aching across your lower stomach and bloating. Keep a food diary and notate any patterns you notice. Show these notes to your doc if you suspect IBS might be the cause of your recurring stomach pain.
Pain in the lower abdomen or pelvis is quite common in women and can be due to many things. The most common thing, as you might imagine, is the menstrual cycle. It’s common to experience pain a couple of days before your period or in the middle of your cycle, during ovulation. If you experience severe stomach cramps and they are affecting your quality of life, speak with your doctor. Endometriosis or adenomyosis are commonly found with severe menstrual symptoms.
If your pelvic pain is not related to your period, it could be a complication with pregnancy, a UTI (urinary tract infection), or pelvic inflammatory disease, which is often accompanied by a fever. (See your doctor in all of these instances.)
Our stomachs and our minds are tightly intertwined - we can never overlook how emotional strain can affect our guts, even in our kiddos! Stomach problems are one of the most common side effects of stress and anxiety. Practice relaxation techniques, figure out what might be worrying you (or what is worrying your child) and make sure you’re both getting enough sleep.
Recurring stomach pain or persistent abdominal discomfort warrants a visit to the doctor to investigate. Let’s look at when it’s time to call your doctor versus getting help immediately.
I can’t promise you can magically get rid of your stomach ache, but here are some things that may help:
There are many other options for home remedies. I can’t speak to how effective they are, so I’m going to leave them off my list. (Nurses like evidence!) Take a warm bath or curl up with a heating pad until it resolves. I always say: Follow your gut! And this time I mean that very literally.
Blake Wageman, RN, BSN has over 11 years of nursing under her belt, primarily focused on NICU babies and, just as importantly, their worried parents.