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Tummy pain in a child

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

It’s very common for children to experience abdominal pain. Depending on their age, you may only know their stomach is uncomfortable as they cry and clutch it or point to it.

Even when older, it can be difficult for them to describe.

Most cases of tummy pain tend to get better on their own without any treatment and usually just last a few hours or a couple of days. If the pain continues, it’s severe, or you have specific concerns, you should speak to your doctor.

Symptoms associated with abdominal pain can include vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, increased temperature, poor appetite, cramps, tenderness when you touch the stomach, and swelling of the abdomen.

What causes abdominal pain?

Common causes of abdominal pain in children include constipation, gastroenteritis, appendicitis, food poisoning, and period pain in young girls. It can also be due to kidney infections, muscular pain, or food reactions. Some children can get abdominal pain due to stress and anxiety or it can be associated with migraines. Sometimes there is no known cause for the abdominal pain.

Bear in mind that as children find it challenging to communicate that something doesn’t feel right in their bodies, or even if they are unhappy with something in their environment, they may have learned that the way to communicate this is by claiming tummy pain. This is because it’s so common that when they’ve told you this, it’s gotten your attention. It can take a while to work out that it’s their head that hurts, they need to go to the toilet, or something has upset them.

What can I try at home?

If your child is constipated, you may want to rub on their tummy, gently massage or try gentle exercise. Increasing the amount of fiber and water in their diet often works. A warm compress or simple painkillers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen (taken with food) can be helpful if they have significant pain.

If your child has symptoms of food poisoning or a tummy bug, keep them comfortable and ensure that they are well hydrated.

Sometimes distraction methods can help if there is no apparent reason for the abdominal pain.

What can the doctor do?

If that doesn’t help, then the child will need to see their doctor. The doctor will ask lots of questions about you and your child – it can be helpful to keep a diary of when they have tummy pain and any foods they’ve eaten, and also whether it just occurs at home or at school and other places, too. Their doctor will also examine their tummy.

They may need to organize further tests such as blood tests, urine tests, stool sample tests, and sometimes an ultrasound scan. If there is any concern, your doctor will refer your child to a specialist pediatrician for further management.

When should I worry?

If the pain lasts longer than a few days or is getting worse (more severe, occurring more frequently), they should see their doctor.

You should seek urgent medical attention if your child is bent over in pain and can’t move, has a persistent temperature that’s not subsiding with painkillers, is refusing to eat and drink, or vomiting for more than 24 hours, is constipated or has any blood in the stool, or they have urinary symptoms.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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