Parents are plenty familiar with these three words from a child: "My tummy hurts." But they're not always sure what to do next. When are a kiss on the head and a tuck into bed all that a kid needs? And when should a pediatrician be called?
Here's what you need to know:
1. TAKE SUDDEN, SEVERE STOMACH PAIN SERIOUSLY
In some situations, it's crucial to seek urgent medical care for a child with stomach pain. These include instances when the pain occurs suddenly or is so severe in intensity that the child doubles over, said Dr. Anupama Chawla, director of the division of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital.
Other symptoms that should lead to immediate care include fever, vomiting, or blood or vomit in the stool, Chawla said, along with an inability to keep any food down.
2. MOST STOMACH ACHES DON'T CALL FOR A DOCTOR'S CARE
Most of the time, "riding it out works as well as anything else," Chawla said, but she noted that this "is often hard for parents to do, and not comforting for the child who is in pain." She suggested trying a small amount of ginger ale, possibly an over-the-counter antacid, a heating pad or belly massage -- and some down time. "Children always respond to some intervention better than telling them to ride it out," she said.
Because constipation often leads kids to complain of stomach pain, parents also need to "make sure the child's bowel movements are regular and soft," she said.
If the stomach ache persists, though, consult the child's doctor. Then, if basic tests rule out a serious problem, Chawla said, the best approach is reassurance along with healthful meals, better sleep patterns and attention to any factors that may be stressing the child.
3. STRESS COULD BE A CAUSE OF STOMACH PAIN
Though it may not seem so to adults, childhood -- especially adolescence -- can create plenty of anxiety. And that can exacerbate abdominal problems, said Dr. Jeremiah Levine, a Lake Success pediatric gastroenterologist affiliated with Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York.
Chawla said that other causes of stomach aches include acid reflux in infants, constipation in toddlers and young kids, irritable bowel disease in school-age kids, and several serious illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease, celiac disease, colitis and more.
4. BE CAREFUL ABOUT MEDICATIONS
Some stomach aches can be treated with over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol or Pepto-Bismol, Levine said. But both Levine and Chawla cautioned about giving certain medications to kids, especially on a long-term basis, such as acid reflux drugs, medications that contain aspirin and laxatives.
Parents can get a better idea of the problem that older children have by simply asking them about their bowel habits, Levine said. "I can't tell you how many times we'll find that kids are constipated, and the parents don't know about it," he said.
5. IF FAKING OCCURS, IT'S USUALLY EASY TO DETECT
Levine said that he doubts that children make up abdominal pain. However, stomachaches affect children differently, as "some will focus more on it and some will focus less," he said. "It may be more incapacitating in some than others."
That's not to say that some kids won't use a tummy ache as a way to fake sickness and avoid something else. Chawla advises that you check the timing of any such complaints, because "usually these symptoms abate on weekends, returning on Sunday nights," she said. Kids who fake stomachaches "are rarely woken up by pain at night, and they stay home from school but eat very hearty meals without any discomfort."