What Are Stomachaches?
Pain is the body's way of signaling that something is going on. Belly pain alerts us to something that's happening inside that we might not know about otherwise. Stomachaches are a common complaint among kids and teens.
Where Does Belly Pain Happen?
Stomachache is a general term for pain that begins somewhere in the abdomen or pelvis:
- The abdomen is the whole area between the chest and the pelvic (hip) bones. It contains many organs besides the stomach, such as the intestines, kidneys, liver, spleen, pancreas, gallbladder, appendix, and adrenal glands .
- The pelvis is right below the abdomen. It holds the urinary organs, as well as the reproductive organs (such as the uterus, ovaries, and vagina in girls, and the testicles and prostate gland in boys).
Sometimes problems in other areas can cause stomachaches too, like infections in the lungs or throat.
What Causes Stomachaches?
Some reasons for belly pain are obvious, like when someone gets hit in the gut or eats spoiled food. Other times, it can be hard to figure out. With so many organs in the abdomen, different problems can have similar symptoms.
Here are some things that can cause stomachaches:
Bacterial infections cause what we call "food poisoning." Bacteria also are responsible for other conditions that may cause belly pain, such as:
- urinary tract infections
- strep throat
- sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
- the rare condition toxic shock syndrome
Viruses, another type of infection, are behind what we call "stomach flu," or gastroenteritis (gas-troe-en-teh-RYE-tiss).
Bacteria and viruses both can pass easily from person to person. To avoid them:
- Wash your hands well and often.
- Don't share cups, straws, or utensils with others.
Irritation and Inflammation
When one of the body's internal organs is irritated or swollen, that can bring on abdominal pain. Pain from problems like appendicitis, ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease is the body's way of telling us to get medical help.
Food reactions can be more than eating too much or basic indigestion. When people can't digest certain foods, doctors say they have a food intolerance. Lactose intolerance, for example, causes belly pain when someone eats milk products. If you notice your child complaining of pain or other symptoms like gas, bloating, or diarrhea after eating certain foods, call your doctor.
Conditions like celiac disease (a reaction to proteins in some grains) or food allergies (like peanut allergy) are different from food intolerance. They involve immune system reactions that can actually harm the body beyond just producing a temporary reaction. Someone who has a true food allergy must always avoid that food.
The digestive system isn't the only cause of stomachaches. Menstrual cramps are a common cause of pain in the reproductive organs. Infections in the reproductive system, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, also can cause abdominal pain in girls.
Testicular injuries can make a guy feel sick or even throw up if they are severe.
Because problems like ectopic pregnancy need quick treatment, girls who have belly pain and think they might be pregnant should call a doctor right away. And girls who have had unprotected sex should be tested for STDs. Untreated STDs can cause problems like infertility and chronic belly or pelvic pain.
Teenagers should always use a condom when having sex to protect against STDs and pregnancy.
Some diseases or defects can affect how the organs do their jobs, causing pain. Crohn's disease can make the intestinal wall swell and scar so much that it may block the intestine.
Hernias also can block the intestines, as can growths like tumors. Torsion is a medical term that means "twisting." Torsion can affect the intestines, ovaries, and testicles, cutting off blood supply or affecting how they work.
How Do Doctors Find the Cause of a Stomachache?
To find the cause of a stomachache, doctors ask about:
- the symptoms
- illnesses the child had in the past
- health conditions that other family members have
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Sometimes, what seems like one problem — food poisoning, for example — can turn out to be something more serious, like appendicitis.
Call the doctor if your child has a stomachache and:
- the pain seems very strong or gets worse over time
- the pain wakes them up from sleep
- the pain is in the right lower side of the belly
- is vomiting a lot
- is very fussy
- is lethargic (very sleepy)
- has another health condition
Let the doctor know about other symptoms your child has, such as:
Also tell the doctor if the pain is from an injury, or if you think your daughter might be pregnant.
How Can I Help My Child?
Most bellyaches in kids and teens don't have a serious cause. They can happen for many different reasons, but most are easy to treat.
If stress or anxiety seem to be behind the pain, for example, the doctor may recommend talking to a counselor or therapist. They can help people figure out what's behind their stress, and give advice on how to fix problems or handle them better.
Can Stomachaches Be Prevented?
Not all belly pain can be prevented. But to help avoid common types of stomachaches, everyone in the family should:
- Wash their hands before eating or preparing food, and after using the bathroom.
- Eat healthy portions, and try not to eat right before going to sleep.
- Drink plenty of water and eat fiber-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to keep food moving through the digestive system.
- Avoid foods that have passed their expiration date or weren't stored properly.
- Avoid foods that make them sick if they have a food allergy or intolerance. If they have a food allergy, they should always have access to an epinephrine auto-injector, and should know when and how to use it if they are old enough.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: 02/11/2019