Stomach flu or stress? Find out the most likely reason for your stomach pain.
Stomach aches are one of the most frustrating, yet common ailments. They can be caused by so many different things: Were those leftovers expired after all? Or do you perhaps have a food sensitivity or a GI condition? There's never a convenient time to be bowled over with cramps, but some symptoms -- like gas or noisy rumblings -- can get especially embarrassing.
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.
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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, or an upset stomach, is abdominal discomfort manifesting in 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, as can over-the-counter stomach medicines such as Pepto-Bismol.
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.
Gastroenteritis, often dubbed the stomach flu, 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 or ingesting food or drink. Symptoms vary depending on the exact germ, but often include stomach pain along with diarrhea, fever, body aches, headaches and nausea.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Chronic indigestion, constipation or gas, meaning it 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 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, 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.
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. Patients with IBD will often be managed by a gastroenterology specialist physician.
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 difficult 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.
There are many other reasons people suffer from 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
Bottom line: If you're experiencing any of the following symptoms, it's time to call a doctor.