When should I see a doctor about stomach pain?

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From mild cramps to severe pain, how do you know when to seek help for a stomach ache? Dr Roshaan Saloojee, a Livi GP, explains the most common types and what to look out for

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Stomach pain is a common symptom, with around 7 in 10 people reporting tummy troubles every year.

‘Most of the time stomach pain is nothing to worry about and will go away on its own, or you might need to take extra steps to ease your symptoms,’ says Dr Roshaan Saloojee, a Livi GP. ‘Very occasionally, though, stomach pain can be a cause for concern.’

Stomach cramps with bloating

Trapped wind can cause stomach cramps and make you feel full, tight or swollen across your stomach. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can also cause painful bloating.

‘Bloating, farting and trapped wind happen when you have more gas than usual,’ says Dr Saloojee. ‘Sometimes this is from swallowing extra air if you eat quickly, chew gum or suck sweets. Gas also comes from foods that are harder to digest, like lentils, leafy greens or vegetables – particularly if you have IBS, are sensitive to fibre or are lactose intolerant.’

When to talk to a doctor

Stomach cramps and wind usually go away in a couple of hours or days. Speak to a doctor if:

  • Your symptoms last longer than this, come back or get worse
  • You notice changes to your poo or toilet habits, including blood in your poo
  • You have unexplained weight loss

Dull, persistent stomach pain

Longer-lasting tummy ache can have lots of different causes, including:

When to talk to a doctor

‘Mild stomach pain with no other symptoms is usually nothing to worry about and should get better on its own or with a few lifestyle changes,’ says Dr Saloojee. ‘But speak to a doctor if it lasts longer than a few days or you have any other symptoms, such as feeling generally unwell.’

Sudden stomach cramps with diarrhoea

Stomach pain with diarrhoea and/or vomiting might be the result of a stomach infection, such as:

‘The usual culprits for a tummy bug are eating unusual or spoiled food and reheating leftover food. You might have severe diarrhoea, vomiting, fever and cramps, which are at their worst in the first 2 days,’ says Dr Saloojee.

‘Make sure you drink plenty of fluids – drink 6-8 glasses of water slowly throughout the day. You can also put rehydration salts in your drink to help you stay hydrated.’

When to talk to a doctor

‘Stomach bugs usually clear up in a few days but can sometimes last up to 14 days,’ says Dr Saloojee. It’s best to speak to a doctor if:

  • Your diarrhoea hasn’t improved after 7 days
  • You have diarrhoea more than 6 times a day
  • You notice blood in your poo
  • You’ve been vomiting for more than 2 days
  • You have signs of dehydration

Severe stomach pain

If you’re in so much pain that you can’t move around, sleep or do normal activities, get medical advice immediately.

Severe stomach pain can be caused by:

‘The pain might start suddenly or gradually become severe,’ explains Dr Saloojee.

When to talk to a doctor

‘Intense pain is a sign that something is wrong. Speak to a doctor as soon as possible, call 111 or go to A&E,’ emphasises Dr Saloojee.

Stomach pain with constipation

Constipation is when you’re pooing less than 3 times a week.

‘If you think you’re constipated, first try eating more fruit and veg, drinking more water and doing some light exercise to get the bowel moving,’ says Dr Saloojee.

‘You can also try over-the-counter laxatives such as senna or lactulose.’

When to talk to a doctor

‘If you have difficulty passing wind for more than a day, speak to a medical professional straight away as this may be a sign of a blockage in the bowel,’ says Dr Saloojee. ‘Also, if you’re still unable to poo after trying some simple solutions, talk to a doctor for more advice.’

Lower stomach pain

Pain in your lower stomach might come from your reproductive or urinary system. If you have a female reproductive system, the pain may be caused by:

Other causes include:

When to talk to a doctor

‘Speak to a doctor if the pain won’t go away or you notice symptoms like burning while you pee, unusual vaginal discharge, pain during sex or heavy periods,’ says Dr Saloojee.

Stomach pain with heartburn

Heartburn, indigestion or acid reflux can cause pain in your upper stomach, burning in your chest and a sour taste in your mouth. It can also feel like pressure in your chest or tummy that gets better when you burp.

‘Heartburn is commonly caused by overeating, diet, alcohol or stress,’ explains Dr Saloojee. ‘You can treat it with over the counter medicine and by avoiding things that trigger your symptoms.’

It can also help to eat smaller meals and avoid eating late at night or lying down after eating.

When to talk to a doctor

‘On its own, heartburn is normal from time to time. But if it happens frequently and you have symptoms like fatigue, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, a lump in your stomach or weight loss, speak to a doctor,’ says Dr Saloojee.

Stomach pain during pregnancy

‘Stomach pains or cramps can be normal in pregnancy. If they’re mild and go away on their own, they’re probably caused by constipation, wind, indigestion or ligament pain,’ explains Dr Saloojee.

Speak to your midwife or a doctor right away if:

  • The pain feels like cramps that come and go (you may be going into labour)
  • The pain persists or gets worse
  • You have pain when you pass urine or back pain
  • You notice unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding

What can help with stomach pain?

You don’t always have to simply put up with a stomach ache. These are things you can do to ease mild or moderate stomach pain at home:

  • Avoid trigger foods
  • Use a heat pad on your tummy for 15 minutes
  • Take paracetamol – avoid ibuprofen, which can aggravate the stomach
  • Have a warm bath
  • Gently massage your stomach in slow, circular motions
  • Try light exercise like walking, stretching or yoga
  • Sip water throughout the day
  • Eat smaller meals
  • Drink peppermint or chamomile tea
  • Take over the counter medicine: antacids for heartburn, laxatives for constipation or hyoscine butylbromide tablets and mebeverine for cramps and bloating

Eating a bland diet (avoiding spicy, raw or fatty food, onions, garlic, alcohol, caffeine and fizzy drinks) can help to ease many different stomach problems.
If stomach pain is a regular problem for you, try keeping a food and symptom diary to narrow down what might be causing your symptoms.

When is stomach pain serious?

Occasionally, stomach pain is a sign of something serious.

Seek medical advice urgently if:

  • Your stomach pain is severe
  • The pain started quickly
  • It’s painful to touch your stomach
  • Your stomach feels hard
  • You’re vomiting blood (it can look like coffee grounds)
  • Your poo is bloody or black, sticky and unusually smelly
  • You’re unable to pee
  • You can’t poo or fart
  • You have chest pain or trouble breathing
  • You have diabetes and are vomiting
  • You feel dizzy or have fainted/collapsed

A doctor will ask you about your symptoms and may do a physical exam, refer you for tests on your poo or blood, and make a plan to help you relieve your stomach pain.

Serious conditions like Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel disease, coeliac disease or cancer can also cause stomach pain. This type of pain is usually chronic (lasting more than 3 months) and you’ll probably notice other symptoms like changes to your toilet habits and feeling tired or unwell.

Some people have chronic stomach pain with no obvious cause. This may affect around 2% of people each year.

This article has been medically approved by Dr Roshaan Saloojee, a Livi GP.

See a GP about stomach pain

If your stomach pain won’t go away, is severe or is causing you concern, book an appointment to speak to a doctor.

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