“My tummy hurts!” If you’re a parent, this is a cry you probably hear pretty often.
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The good news is, in most cases, abdominal pain is not serious and gets better with little or no treatment.
Causes for a child’s aching belly can range from trivial to life-threatening, including infections, food poisoning, constipation or acid reflux. However, when it’s recurrent and a specific cause has not been identified, treatment can be a challenge.
Pediatric gastroenterologist Sophia Patel, MD, shares common causes of stomachaches in tots and teens, along with advice on when to call or visit the doctor.
What is causing your child’s stomachache?
“Stomachaches in children are common, but because kids cannot fully articulate symptoms, it’s important for parents to be aware of certain symptoms,” says Dr. Patel.
Here are five reasons your child’s stomach may be hurting:
1. “Stomach flu” (but it’s not really the flu)
Gastroenteritis, which can bring on a stomachache in children, is typically caused by a virus. It usually includes diarrhea, with or without vomiting, and possibly a low-grade fever. It will usually 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’s blood in your child’s stool or vomit.
- Your child’s symptoms last longer than five days.
- Your child has a high fever.
- Your child is showing signs of dehydration, such as dry lips, decreased urine, pale skin or listless behavior. These are signs that something more serious could be wrong.
2. Reflux/acid irritation
We tend to think of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) as an adult problem, but it’s also common in kids and babies. GERD is often tough to pinpoint, especially in very young children, but these symptoms can be strong indicators:
- Complaining of a sour taste in their mouth.
- Pain in the upper abdomen.
- Excessive burping.
Most kids outgrow GERD over time, but it can typically be treated with antacids and, if necessary, medications called H2 blockers such as Pepcid®, or proton-pump inhibitor drugs such as Nexium® or Prevacid.® Changes in the diet can help, too. Kids with GERD should avoid foods and drinks like soda, orange juice, tomato-based products and spicy foods. Medications such as ibuprofen can also irritate the stomach.
“Constipation is one of the most common causes of abdominal pain in kids,” says Dr. Patel. Adding more fiber and water to a child’s diet can really help. Watch for rectal bleeding, though. It could signal something more serious.
Frequent issues with constipation that don’t seem to resolve can point to other medical conditions such as celiac disease, an underactive thyroid gland or other conditions that need further medical attention.
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 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. Other, less-common issues
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.
Sudden pain in a child’s lower right abdomen is a sign of appendicitis, and you should seek immediate medical attention for your child.
Recurring tummy aches that seem like gastroenteritis could really be a sign of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – especially if you have a family history of IBD. Frequent stomachaches can also be caused by irritable bowel disease, food allergies, celiac disease, parasites and lactose intolerance.
So if your 8-year-old complains of stomach pain all the time, or your toddler’s belly ache seems like something more, listen to your parental “gut” and don’t be afraid to reach out to your child’s doctor.