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Why does my stomach hurt? Common causes and when to see a doctor

Stomach pain has a number of potential causes, and it can also be a symptom of certain conditions.

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Stomach pain is no fun. There's never a convenient time to be bowled over with cramps, and some symptoms -- like gas or noisy rumblings -- can make you want to run and hide immediately. 

The only thing worse than an upset stomach is not knowing exactly what caused it. Were those leftovers expired after all? Or do you perhaps have a food sensitivity or a GI condition?

Based on your symptoms and how frequently you experience them, you can nail down the most likely culprit behind your stomach pain -- which means you can treat and manage it more wisely. Below, we go over the most common reasons that your stomach hurts and what to do, including when it's time to call the doctor. 

Read more: Probiotics explained: What to know before you buy

If your stomach hurts suddenly

Acute stomach pain comes on quickly and lasts for a limited amount of time, typically a few hours to a few days. It's usually caused by external factors, like a particular food or contaminant that didn't agree with your stomach. Even people with completely healthy digestive tracts will experience occasional stomach pain.

Indigestion

Indigestion, or an upset stomach, consists of abdominal pain, discomfort, bloating and uncomfortable fullness, sometimes early on into a meal. You may also feel heat or burning in your abdomen. It can be triggered by certain foods, particularly spicy or greasy food, caffeine, alcohol, chocolate or carbonation. It can also happen after eating too quickly, or as a side effect of some medications. Herbal teas such as peppermint, ginger or chamomile help provide relief, along with over-the-counter stomach medicines such as Pepto-Bismol.

Food poisoning

Food poisoning is the result of consuming a contaminated food or drink. Symptoms can take hours or days to develop, and they include upset stomach, cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you're experiencing frequent diarrhea, vomiting or both, this can also lead to dehydration. It's important to continue drinking fluids regularly and call a doctor if your symptoms worsen or don't go away within a few days.

Stomach flu

The stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, is caused by several different viruses, bacteria and parasites, per the CDC. It's not related to the regular flu, but it does spread in a similar way: by coming into contact with an infected person. Symptoms vary depending on the exact germ, but often include stomach pain along with diarrhea, fever, body aches, headaches, nausea and more. 

Most people recover from the stomach flu within a few days. The main risk is dehydration, which some are especially vulnerable to, including babies and immunocompromised people. Drink plenty of fluids, and if you see symptoms of dehydration or if your symptoms don't go away within three days, see a doctor.

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Constipation

Constipation happens when you're unable to have bowel movements at your usual frequency. It tends to cause a feeling of bloating or fullness, as well as sharp cramps and aches. If you do have a bowel movement, it's likely hard and dry.

Constipation can be caused by a wide range of factors, from not eating enough fiber to certain medications. If your constipation is mild and occasional, try drinking more water, eating extra fiber and exercising. Laxatives or stool softeners can also help allow your stool to pass and provide relief.

If you're experiencing severe, ongoing constipation, the above treatments may not work well. A doctor can help narrow down the cause so you can get the right treatment.

Gas 

Trapped gas can cause similar symptoms to constipation, including bloating and belly pain, but it may also cause belching or flatulence. Some foods are more likely to cause gas, like beans, vegetables, fruits, dairy and carbonated drinks. 

Gas is a perfectly normal part of the digestion process; it's when it builds up in your body that it becomes uncomfortable. To prevent painful gas, you can avoid foods that make you extra gassy (this varies from person to person), eat slowly, and drink peppermint or chamomile tea before meals. Exercise can also help get the gas out of your system.

Mental health

Your mental health and gut health are intimately connected via the gut-brain axis. Stress and anxiety can both lead to an upset stomach, with symptoms ranging from bloating to cramping and loss of appetite. A lack of sleep can also impact your gut health and lead to digestive issues. 

Read more: The gut-brain axis: How your gut affects your mental health

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If you have chronic or frequent stomach pain

Chronic indigestion, constipation or gas -- that happens on a regular, ongoing basis -- can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying condition. A few of the most common digestive conditions are listed below -- but remember that only a health care professional can diagnose you, so make sure to consult with your provider if you're concerned.

Lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance is extremely common -- 65 to 70% of the global adult population has some level of intolerance to lactose. In the US, people of African, indigenous, Asian or Latin American descent are most likely to have lactose intolerance, per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 

Even if you can eat some amounts or types of dairy and not others, you may still be lactose intolerant -- most people have differing levels of tolerance, and not all milk products have the same amount of lactose. Symptoms include bloating, diarrhea, gas, nausea, stomach rumbling and abdominal pain. In some cases, vomiting can also occur.

If you don't want to avoid dairy altogether, keep track of which foods cause the worst symptoms for you and steer clear. Or you can take a lactase tablet, such as Lactaid.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is one of the most common digestive disorders out there -- but it's actually not a disease. Instead, it's a functional GI disorder, marked by a group of symptoms that occur together in the absence of any "visible signs of damage or disease" in your digestive system, per the NIDDK. These include abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation.

IBS, like other functional GI disorders, seems to stem from problems with the gut-brain connection that cause your gut to be extra sensitive -- and 50 to 90% of cases occur alongside a psychological condition, such as depression. IBS can also relate to genetic factors, inflammation or altered gut bacteria, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders.

This chronic, long-term condition can be managed with the help of a doctor, who can recommend specific lifestyle changes and other treatment.

Inflammatory bowel disease

IBS is often confused with IBD, but the two disorders are completely different. IBD stands for inflammatory bowel disease, which is an umbrella term for digestive diseases that involve chronic inflammation. The two most common inflammatory bowel diseases are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Crohn's disease causes inflammation in the lining of the digestive tract, most frequently in the small intestine. As the inflammation extends deep into body tissue, it causes severe abdominal pain and diarrhea. Other symptoms of Crohn's include chronic fatigue and unintentional weight loss.

Ulcerative colitis causes ulcers in the lining of the GI tract, specifically the rectum and colon (or large intestine). It causes similar symptoms to Crohn's disease, including stomach pain.

Treatment for IBD depends on the specific disease and symptoms, but may include lifestyle changes, medication or surgery.

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Celiac disease

Gluten-free foods may be a health trend these days, but for people with Celiac disease, they're a medical necessity. Celiac disease causes even a tiny amount of gluten to trigger the body's immune system to attack its own small intestine. The lining becomes damaged, making it impossible for the body to absorb the nutrients that it needs to function. This can lead to digestive issues, extreme fatigue, weight loss, malnutrition and anemia. And over time, more severe and long-term complications can occur, including osteoporosis, reproductive issues and even neurological changes.

Many people with celiac disease don't know they have it. A doctor can determine a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.

Gluten can also cause stomach pain in people without Celiac disease. This is considered gluten sensitivity, and it doesn't involve an immune response or damaged intestine.

Other conditions

There are other, rarer reasons for stomach pain, including gastritis (an inflamed stomach lining), food allergies, ulcers, a urinary tract infection, appendicitis, endometriosis and some forms of cancer, among many others. 

Read more: How to (finally) fix your chronic stomach issues

When to call a doctor

Bottom line: If you're experiencing any of the following symptoms, it's time to call a doctor.

  • Bloody diarrhea, stools or vomit
  • Black stools
  • A fever over 102 degrees
  • Signs of severe dehydration, like feeling dizzy or a lack of tears or urine
  • Unintentional weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Diarrhea that lasts for longer than three days

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.