Tummy troubles: what causes stomach pain and when to call the doctor

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Top things to know about tummy troubles

When a parent hears “my tummy hurts,” it can be hard for mom and dad to determine exactly what their little one means. Bharani P. Challa, MD, Dell Children’s Medical Group pediatric gastroenterologist at Davis Lane, offers parents these top things to know about tummy troubles.

Dell Children’s is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

Causes of constipation and how to avoid the backup

Constipation occurs when stool is retained in the colon longer than it should be. As water is absorbed from the stool, it becomes harder, drier and more difficult to pass. A balanced diet that is rich in fiber, and regular exercise can help your child maintain regular, healthy bowel movements.

Stomach flu vs. stomach bug

The “flu” or influenza viruses can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but other symptoms associated with flu are high-grade fevers, muscle aches and fatigue. Other viruses such as rotavirus or norovirus are often thought of as “stomach bugs” and can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Most viruses are treated with fluids, fever reducers and rest. Tamiflu can be prescribed for influenza to help decrease the severity and duration of symptoms.

The power of water 

Staying well hydrated is important for overall health, and can help your little one from overeating. Drinking water helps a child feel more full and avoid the discomforts of overeating. Sugary drinks have the opposite effect. They make you thirstier and have little to no nutritional value.

Heartburn isn’t just for mom or dad

Children of all ages can get heartburn. Heartburn is a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). Other symptoms of GERD are food coming up to the back of the throat that is spit out or re-swallowed, and a sour taste in the mouth. Infants with GERD may be irritable, have feeding difficulties or arch their backs with discomfort. Older children and teenagers may experience a burning sensation in the chest or throat, or chest pain.  GERD is treated by reducing the amount of acid produced by the stomach with either fast-acting antacids (H2 blockers) or stronger acid reducers (proton pump inhibitors).

While many stomach aches may not need medical attention, Dr. Challa says to call the doctor if your child experiences severe, acute pain that is in a specific area of the abdomen, or chronic pain.

  • Severe pain in the lower right side of the abdomen could be caused by appendicitis, especially if your child has fever.
  • Severe pain above the belly button could be related to inflammation in the pancreas.
  • Chronic abdominal pain could be related to food intolerances such as lactose intolerance, particularly if there is a lot of gas or diarrhea.
  • Celiac disease, an autoimmune condition where gluten (a protein in certain grains) causes inflammation in the small intestine and can cause chronic abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, constipation or poor growth.

It’s also important to call the doctor if your child’s pain effects his appetite, is associated with vomiting or persistent diarrhea, or causes your child to wake up at night or miss normal activities such as school or sports.