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8 common causes of stomach pain in kids

Stomach pain is common in children and a frequent reason parents bring their child to see a medical provider. The pain can range from a serious problem, such as appendicitis, to a benign problem, such as constipation. So, how are you supposed to tell between a serious ailment that needs medical attention and a passing discomfort your child is experiencing?

Children often aren't the best communicators, especially when it comes to pain they haven't experienced before. Let's take a look at some of the most common causes of stomach pain in children, how to spot the signs of what the cause of their pain may be, and how to treat it.

What causes stomach pain?

Pain is how the body tells you something is wrong. It is always good to listen to your body when you feel pain, as it likely means that you need to take some sort of action to remedy it. This is an important concept to teach your child. It will help make them feel secure in telling you when something hurts because sometimes you won't be able to automatically know when they're in pain.

When it comes to stomach pain, there are several potential causes. These are just a few of the many possibilities:

  • Gas: Gas pain is very common in kids of all ages. Gas is a normal process in digestion, but it can cause pain if gas is trapped or not moving well through the intestines. The child's diet is normally what causes the pain. Carbonated drinks (such as sodas), sugar substitutes (found in sugar-free candies), beans, spicy foods, dairy products and eating/drinking too quickly can cause an increased production of gas. 
  • Constipation: For kids and adults, constipation is a common source of stomach pain. Children, however, may not know what constipation is and that it can cause their stomach to hurt. If they are feeling pain near their belly button or on the left lower side of the abdomen, it could be constipation.

    The pain is typically colicky (comes and goes). Ask them when they last did a number two in the bathroom or if they have been having trouble having a bowel movement.
  • Overeating: This can cause stomach discomfort that your child finds painful. Eating too much of anything, from pizza to fruit, can cause abdominal pain. As kids often eat quickly and don't know the painful downsides of doing so, they tend to eat well past when their stomach is actually full. They then feel the pain afterward.
  • Lactose intolerance: Many people are lactose intolerant, but they won't know it until they experience stomach pain from eating foods that contain lactose. Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk and milk products, such as cheese and ice cream. The body typically produces an enzyme called lactase in order to digest lactose properly, but some people don't have this enzyme. That means they have a condition called lactose intolerance.

    When they eat milk products, they experience abdominal cramps, gas, diarrhea or constipation. If your child has lactose intolerance and doesn't know it, their stomach pain could be a result of eating milk products.
  • Food poisoning: About 48 million Americans experience food poisoning every year, and kids aren't exempt from being included in this number. Food poisoning occurs when you eat food that wasn't cooked properly or food that has gone bad over time. It can cause stomach pain as well as diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Stomach virus: Children often pass around stomach viruses in schools, daycares or other common areas. A stomach virus is like a flu or cold virus. It is a viral infection that affects the stomach rather than the upper respiratory system or sinuses. Stomach pain is usually the first symptom of a stomach virus, typically followed by vomiting and diarrhea within 24 hours.
  • Appendicitis: This is one cause of stomach pain for which you would want to bring to your child to the emergency department as soon as possible. Appendicitis is inflammation of the appendix, which is a small organ that projects from the colon.

    If your child says they have severe, constant pain in the lower right side of their abdomen and that even slight movement causes pain there, it could be appendicitis. While it is uncommon in children under the age of 5, appendicitis is more likely to occur in older children and teenagers.
  • Stress: Another common cause of stomach pain is stress. When children, or adults for that matter, feel worried or stressed, abdominal pain can result. If your child has a recurrent stomach ache with no other apparent cause, it could be stress. The best remedy for this cause is to gently ask them if they are worried about something and if they would like to talk about it.

With all of these different causes of stomach pain, it can be hard for parents to know what type of treatment or care to give their child. However, it's important to find the cause of your child's stomach pain so that you can take them to the doctor if needed.

Signs to watch for and ways to treat the symptoms

Children of different ages will show different signs that they are experiencing stomach pain. Infants and young toddlers tend to express their discomfort with crying, scrunching up their faces and curling up their bodies. Young children may also cry or curl up, but they're usually quick to tell you something hurts. Older children and teenagers may be reluctant to say that they feel any pain, but if they give a small indication you can ask more questions to further understand their symptoms.

If your child can speak, be sure to ask how long they’ve had the pain and where the pain is located. Stomach aches caused by gas or a stomach virus often go away within 24 hours. Abdominal pain that lasts longer than 24 hours, however, warrants a trip to the doctor.

You can also note whether your child is vomiting or has diarrhea. Either of these symptoms won't warrant a doctor's visit immediately, but vomiting that lasts longer than 24 hours or diarrhea that lasts longer than 72 hours indicates there might be a more serious problem. If your child's vomit or stool has blood in it after any length of time, you should go to the doctor for medical care.

At-home treatment tips

If your child is not exhibiting these more severe symptoms and the pain isn't intense, you can treat stomach aches at home. Try having your child lie down, and then place a heating pad or warm compress on their stomach. You can also gently massage their belly and give them small sips of water. These steps should help with gas or indigestion that is causing pain.

You can also give them over-the-counter medication to help with the pain, but you should always check with your doctor before doing so. If your child seems to have stomach pain that comes and goes over several days to weeks, keep a food diary and look for connections between certain foods and their pain. They may have a food allergy that is causing the pain.

What if I still have concerns?

Most stomach aches will only last one or two hours, but knowing the common causes of stomach pain can help ease your mind. By providing small comforts to treat stomach pain at home, you can help your child feel better more quickly.

While some stomach aches can be treated at home, don't hesitate to visit your doctor or an Indigo Urgent Care clinic if you would like your child evaluated and to discuss your concerns with a medical professional. 

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