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What you should know about stomachaches

Stomachaches aren't just an issue for kids. Adults

Stomachaches aren't just an issue for kids. Adults get them, too. But it's not always clear what to do about an adult-size stomachache. Here's what you need to know to figure out your best options. Photo Credit: Fotolia

Stomachaches aren't just an issue for kids. Adults get them, too. But it's not always clear what to do about an adult-size stomachache. Sit tight? Take a pill? See a doctor?

Here's what you need to know to figure out your best options.


1. Stomachaches can stem from a multitude of problems

Trying to diagnose yourself may be a bad idea because there are so many possible reasons for a stomachache.

"The causes can be very complex," said Dr. Anthony Guida, chairman of family medicine at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip. "Conditions that cause stomachaches range from food intolerance, viral gastroenteritis, pancreatitis, colitis, gallbladder disease, gastric or intestinal ulceration, acute surgical emergencies like appendicitis and diverticulitis to gastrointestinal cancers. This list is only partial but illustrates the importance of precise diagnosis in order to provide proper medical care."

Of course, much less-serious conditions also can cause stomachaches -- like overeating or eating a lot on an empty stomach, said Dr. Isabelle von Althen, assistant professor of medicine with the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at Stony Brook Medicine.


2. Pain can be a warning sign

Guida suggests that people with stomachaches contact their physicians immediately if they vomit blood, have persistent vomiting or have blood in the stool, black stool, a fever above 100.4 degrees, severe abdominal pain or if they feel faint.

People also should seek guidance if they suffer from any chronic illnesses such as diabetes, he said, or if stomachache symptoms last for two or more days.

Guida cautions that these guidelines aren't ironclad because they don't account for every possible medical problem related to stomachaches. "Patients should always seek advice and help from their health care provider if they are unsure," he said.


3. Over-the-counter medications may offer relief

People often believe their stomachaches are caused by indigestion, although von Althen said that term isn't very precise.

If someone has heartburn, which causes an upward burning sensation in the esophagus, she recommends antacids known as H2-receptor blockers. Zantac, Tagamet and Pepcid are brand-name examples. Prilosec, which is a proton pump inhibitor, is helpful, too, although it takes about a day to kick in, she said.

Pain below the belly button can be a sign of constipation. MiraLax is the safest laxative to take to get the bowels moving, von Althen said, although it doesn't provide immediate relief. For diarrhea, she suggests Imodium.

What about stomachaches brought on by stress? Take an antacid (like Tums), she advises, because "an antacid never hurts, ever."


4. Be wary of aspirin for a stomachache

"Under no circumstances should patients take aspirin or aspirinlike products to help with an undiagnosed stomachache," Guida said.

The problem, von Althen noted, is that a stomachache could be a sign of an ulcer, and aspirin can worsen bleeding.

"Tylenol is fine, but don't take aspirin or Motrin or any one of those things," she said, referring to a wider class of painkillers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that also include Aleve and Celebrex, among others.

She also warned against taking Alka-Seltzer for an achy stomach because it contains aspirin.

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