Tummy ache: the concise guide to dealing with it

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Every third child is going to see a doctor for a tummy ache. It is important for a parent to know when it is serious.

Tummy ache or abdominal pain is one of the commonest reasons why a parent takes the child to see a doctor. In fact, 30% of children under the age of 15 have seen a doctor at one point in a time. The trouble is, in children, anything from an ear infection to appendicitis can cause tummyache. Sadly, it is also the easiest symptom to fake to get out of school! So, how do you know when to take it seriously? Let’s find out. 

What causes a tummy ache

Broadly speaking, there are 3 main reasons why a child’s tummy should ache. To start with, if there is something irritating an organ in the tummy, like say, gas, it will cause the bowels to distend. And this may cause a discomfort and a tummy ache. Secondly, if the muscles of the abdomen are strained, for instance after a bout of vomiting or straining, it may also result into tummyache. And lastly, pain in other parts of the body can be felt in the tummy and is known as a referred pain.

What differentiates each is whether the pain is general or local, and how deep it is. In addition, there are a few pains that are felt in specific regions of the abdomen, though not always restricted to them. This may also give a clue about the severity of the condition. That said, a doctor must see your child for diagnosis.

Common causes of tummy ache in children

By far, the most common cause of a tummyache is related to the digestive system. Let us see the causes, and what relieves that tummy ache.

1# Bowel gas

It might seem silly, but bowel gas can cause a significant distress in a child. The entire abdomen may look distended and the child becomes restless.

How to spot this: If you tap on the tummy to the left of the belly button, you will hear a hollow sound, indicating that there is gas in the bowels. 

How to relieve it: If old enough, a visit to the toilet might release the gas. If it is a baby, try to gently massage the abdomen with a palm of a hand in gentle circular motion. Then, lift the legs up gently. Do this 3-4 times, then take a pause. Repeat if the baby is finding comfort in it till he passes wind.

2# Gastrointestinal infection

Any type of bacterial, parasitic, protozoal, or viral infection may cause abdominal pain

How to spot this: Change in the bowel movement, especially diarrhoea or dysentery. 

How to relieve it: It will go away after the infection subsides. Till then, you can try a hot water bag, taking care about the safety of the bag. Do not give any pain medicine without consulting your doctor first.

3# Irritable bowel disease

It is a type of a chronic condition where the bowel is sensitive to certain foods, or even stress.

How to spot this: Intermittent diarrhoea and normal stools (or even constipation), that goes on for a while. 

How to relieve it: See a doctor for the IBD. For the tummy pain, your child will find a most comfortable position to lie down.

4# Intusseption

This is a serious condition in children that causes the bowel to telescope over another part of the bowel. It causes tremendous pain and a baby would cry and cry without any apparent reason. If it is an older child, he might appear tired and floppy. 

How to spot this: Severe abdominal pain that comes and goes in the first 12 hours, and later becomes constant. The stools may have blood and mucus and may look like a red currant jelly. The abdomen might be swollen and the child may vomit. 

How to relieve it: Rush to a doctor, as this condition requires immediate medical attention.

5# Appendicitis

The appendix is a hollow tube on the right lower side of the tummy. Sometimes, it gets inflamed and causes pain. 

How to spot this: Dull pain in the right lower side of the tummy, though the pain might be more general as well. The child will feel dull and may not eat properly. There may be fever and vomiting associated with it.

How to relieve: This requires immediate medical attention.

6# Torsion of testis/ovary

The testes or the ovary may twist around its axis. And in the process, it compresses the vessels supplying blood to it. 

How to spot this: Severe lower abdominal pain, usually after a bout of rigorous activity. The pain is so intense that your child may not be able to sit down. If it is testis, it may look different than usual. 

How to relieve it: Rush to a doctor. An immediate medical intervention is needed.

7# Unexplained pain behind the belly button

Many children experience a pain behind the belly button that is not explained by any medical tests/conditions. It increases with stress or activity and the child feels like just lying down all the time. This is commonly referred to as Recurrent Abdominal Pain of childhood. 

How to spot this: Real pain without a detectable cause

How to relieve the pain: This happens in older children, so let them find a comfortable position to lie down. 

Do’s and Don’ts

Because of all the organs packed in the tummy, it is called as a Pandora’s box! Here are a few things you need to watch out for, when it comes to tummy aches.

When to see a doctor

Under six months old

  • Fever
  • Diarrhoea (abnormally frequent, watery stools that may contain mucus or blood)
  • Extreme fussiness

All ages

  • Weight loss
  • Bloody or black stools
  • Abdominal pain that awakens the child at night
  • Pain lasting longer than 24 hours
  • Vomiting that continues for four to six hours or longer
  • Vomiting dark green material
  • If you suspect dehydration


Things to avoid doing

There are a few things that you should refrain from doing when the child has a tummy ache.

  • Don’t give fried/greasy food even if it is a comfort food
  • Don’t give pain medicines without consulting your doctor first
  • Don’t apply any herbal remedy on the tummy, this might cause a reaction in a child
  • Don’t give any homemade concoction to relieve the pain
  • Don’t ignore the serious symptoms and signs mentioned above

Mums, tummy aches are going to be there till the child grows up. (and even after that, but by that time, he/she will take care of it himself/herself). So it is good to know about the most common causes. And, as always, if you are unsure, see a doctor.

Source: WebMD, NHS, Today’s Parent

Also, read My son kept on falling sick ever since he started going to daycare



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