Stomachaches: 5 Things Parents Should Know

How to tell if it's a regular tummy ache or something serious

At some point, every parent hears these three words: “My stomach hurts.”

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Most of the time, kids’ stomach pain goes away on its own with home remedies such as ginger ale and TLC. But sometimes stomachaches signal something more serious. How can you tell the difference?

Pediatric gastroenterologist Deborah Goldman, MD, 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, which can bring on stomachaches in children, is typically caused by a virus.  It usually includes diarrhea with or without vomiting and possibly a low grade fever. It will run its course in three to five days without a need for a doctor’s help. Be sure to have your child drink plenty of fluids. A trip to the doctor or possibly the emergency room  is in order if there is blood in the stool or vomit, if your child’s symptoms last longer than five days, there is a high fever, or there are signs of dehydration, such as dry lips, decreased urine, pale skin or listless behavior, as these  are signs that something more serious could be wrong.
  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 is often tough to pinpoint, especially in very young children, but vomiting is often a strong indicator. So are complaints of a sour taste in the mouth, pain in the upper part of the abdomen and excessive burping. GERD can typically be treated with antacids and, if necessary, medications called H2 blockers such as Pepcid® or Zantac® or proton-pump inhibitor drugs such as Nexium® or Prevacid®. Changes in the diet can help, too. Kids with GERD should avoid acidic drinks like soda pop, orange juice, tomato-based products, spicy foods and medications, such as ibuprofen, can irritate the stomach.
  3. Constipation is a frequent cause Constipation is a common cause of abdominal pain in kids. Adding more fiber to a child’s diet, along with apple juice (preferably unsweetened) or prune juice can really help. Watch for rectal bleeding, though. It could signal something more serious. Longstanding issues with constipation can point to other medical conditions such as  celiac disease, an underactive thyroid gland or other condition that needs further medical attention.
  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, flavored waters and sports drinks. 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, and you should seek immediate medical attention for your child. In addition, recurring bouts of what seems like gastroenteritis could really be a sign of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), says Dr. Goldman, especially if you have a family history of IBD.  Longstanding recurrent stomachaches can be caused by food allergies, celiac disease, parasites, and lactose intolerance.

So when a stomachache seems like something more, listen to your parental “gut”— and don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s doctor and seek further medical attention and advice.

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