At some point, every parent hears these three words: “My stomach hurts.”
Most of the time, kids’ stomach pain goes away on its own with home remedies such as ginger ale and TLC. But sometimes stomach aches signal something more serious. How can you tell the difference?
Matthew Wyneski, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist in Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, offers parents five tips about tummy aches in tots and teens, along with advice on when to call or visit the doctor:
1. “Stomach flu” isn’t really the flu
Gastroenteritis, one of the most common causes of stomach aches in children, is typically caused by a virus — just not the influenza virus. It usually includes diarrhea and vomiting and will run its course in seven to 10 days without the need for medical assistance. Be sure to have your child drink plenty of fluids.
Also, watch for blood in the vomit or stool. Those are signs that something more serious could be wrong, and a trip to the doctor is in order.
2. Kids get heartburn, too
We tend to think of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) as an adult problem, but it’s also common in kids. GERD can be tough to pinpoint, especially in very young children, but vomiting is often a strong indicator. So are complaints of a sour or foul taste in the mouth and pain in the upper middle part of the abdomen.
GERD can typically be treated with antacids and, if necessary, proton-pump inhibitor drugs such as Nexium® or Prevacid®. Changes in the diet can help, too. Kids with GERD should avoid acidic drinks such as soda pop and orange juice, tomato-based products, and spicy foods.
3. Constipation is a frequent cause
Along with gastroenteritis and GERD, constipation rounds out the three most common causes of abdominal pain in kids. Adding more fiber to a child’s diet, along with apple juice (preferably unsweetened) or prune juice can be a big help for constipation.
Watch for rectal bleeding, though. It may be a sign of something more serious at play. And chronic constipation can point to celiac disease or an underactive thyroid gland, among other conditions.
4. Eight glasses of water a day is no myth
Drinking a lot of fluid is important, and not just to keep kids hydrated during a bout of gastroenteritis. Drinking enough fluids will help them maintain healthy bowel function.
At least half the fluid a child drinks should be plain water. Avoid soda pop and other sugary drinks, including sweetened juices. Too much sugar can actually cause stomach aches — not to mention obesity and the long-term health problems associated with it.
5. It may be more than just a stomach ache
Most of the time, a stomach ache shouldn’t cause alarm. But parents should be mindful of how long it lasts and any other symptoms that come with it. Acute pain in a child’s lower right abdomen is a sign of appendicitis, which should be treated right away.
In addition, recurring bouts of what seems like gastroenteritis could really be a sign of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), says Dr. Wyneski, especially if you have a family history of IBD. And chronic stomach aches can come from food allergies or food intolerance.
So when a stomach ache seems like something more, listen to your parental “gut”— and don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s doctor.