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Tummy pain in a child

Updated 30.05.2022
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It’s really common for children to experience abdominal pain. Depending on their age, you may only know it’s their stomach that’s 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, diarrhoea 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 can be 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 associated with migraines. Sometimes there is no known cause for the abdominal pain. Bear in mind that as children find it difficult 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 learnt 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 before, it’s got your attention. It can take a while to work out that it’s their head that hurts, or 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 fibre and water in their diet often works. If they have significant pain, a warm compress or simple painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen (taken with food) can be helpful. 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 obvious 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 of 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 organise 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 paediatrician 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 settling with painkillers, is refusing to eat and drink, or vomiting for more than 24 hours, is constipated or any blood in the stool, or they have urinary symptoms.

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