“My stomach hurts.” If you have children, chances are you’ve heard this statement at least once.
Stomach pain is one of the most common complaints among children and teens. It can range from mild discomfort to severe cramping, burning or nausea. While most cases aren’t serious, it’s helpful to know what can cause stomach pain and when to call a doctor.
Here are some of the most frequent causes of stomach problems in small children and teens:
Gas pain or indigestion is common in kids of all ages. Diet often plays a role. Carbonated drinks, such as soda may upset the stomach, especially if the child drinks through a straw. Spicy foods, beans, citrus and caffeine (including chocolate) may cause gas.
Younger kids may not know what constipation is or that it can lead to stomach pain. If your child complains of stomach pain around the belly button or the left lower side of the abdomen, ask them when they last pooped, or if they’re having problems doing it.
Too much of anything, from pizza and popcorn to Halloween candy, can cause abdominal pain. Kids often eat quickly and don’t realize they’re full until they’ve overdone it. Plus, eating too quickly can contribute to discomfort.
Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk and milk products. “In order to digest lactose properly, the body produces an enzyme called lactase,” explains Sangita Bhasin, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Encinitas. “People who do not have this enzyme have a condition called lactose intolerance. When they consume milk products, they may have symptoms such as abdominal cramps, gas, diarrhea or constipation.”
Milk allergy is a reaction to a protein in milk that may cause cramps. It is not the same as lactose intolerance.
When kids feel stressed or worried, they may feel abdominal pain. “Stomach aches that appear to have no apparent cause may be due to stress, especially if the pain is recurrent. But all the child knows is that their stomach hurts,” says Dr. Bhasin. “When this happens, gently ask the child if they’re worried about something and want to talk about it. There could be problems at school or with friends.”
Bacterial or viral infections can affect the stomach and may be spread between students at school or in common areas. Stomach pain is often the first symptom, usually followed within 24 hours by vomiting and diarrhea.
If your child complains of severe, constant pain in the low right side of the abdomen and even slight movement is painful, appendicitis may be to blame. Appendicitis is more common in older children and teens; it is unusual in children under age 5.
Most causes of stomach pain don’t require medical care, but do call your child’s doctor right away if any of the following occur:
- Pain on the lower right side is severe and constant, which may indicate appendicitis
- Pain is severe and lasts more than an hour
- Pain is constant and lasts more than two hours
- Your child has a fever and/or is vomiting
- You see blood in your child’s stool
- Your baby is younger than 12 months
“It’s always better to err on the side of caution,” says Dr. Bhasin. “If you’re concerned about your child’s stomach pain, call the doctor.”
Most stomach aches won’t last more than an hour or two, and often you can help your child feel better by trying these tips:
- Have your child lie down and rest.
- Place a warm compress or heating pad on their stomach.
- Gently massage your child’s belly, which can help with gas and indigestion.
- Give small sips of water.
- Check with your doctor before giving any over-the-counter medication. Ibuprofen, for example, can further upset the stomach.
- If indigestion occurs often, keep a food diary and look for links between certain foods and stomach pain.
Finally, if stomach aches are a frequent problem, talk with your pediatrician. You may be able to work together to identify the cause and make changes to help your child feel better.