Abdominal Pain in Children: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Abdominal pain in children is a common complaint. It can be caused by various conditions, including constipation, gas, indigestion, abdominal muscle strain, and infections.
Sometimes, the cause is not apparent even after tests are done. In these cases, it’s essential to find out what’s causing your child’s symptoms so you can help your child feel better as quickly as possible.
Children can experience pain in the right lower abdomen to the upper abdomen and sometimes even as far as the chest (although this is rare). This type of pain can be:
- Sharp, jabbing, or cramping
- A dull ache
- Always present (constant) or sometimes present (intermittent)
What are the symptoms of abdominal pain in children?
Common symptoms of children’s abdominal pain include:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Diarrhoea, or constipation.
- Fever, which may be low grade (99.5° F or lower) or high grade (100.4° F or higher).
- Loss of appetite and weight loss, especially if your child has chronic abdominal pain.
How can I help my child explain their pain symptoms?
The best way to help your child explain their pain symptoms is to discuss them. It’s vital for you and your child to understand the problem so you can discuss it with your doctor, who can devise a treatment plan.
Discussing pain with children can be challenging because they often don’t know how to describe their feelings. The following tips may help:
- It’s important not to dismiss your child’s pain or say, “Don’t be such a baby.” This will only make it harder for them to talk about their symptoms in the future.
- Ask open-ended questions that allow your child to tell you what happened and how they feel.
- Use age-appropriate language and ask follow-up questions whenever necessary.
- When you describe the symptoms, avoid getting too technical or using medical terms like “abdominal pain” or “cramping.” These may sound scary and make your child worry more about what’s happening in their body.
Causes of abdominal pain in children
- Acute gastroenteritis is an infection of the lining of the stomach and intestines, causing watery diarrhoea and vomiting. It’s very contagious, so keep your child away from other children until the illness has passed.
- In appendicitis, the appendix becomes inflamed and fills up with pus as it becomes infected. This can cause severe pain around your child’s belly button. Appendicitis can happen at any age, from infancy through adolescence.
- Constipation happens when someone has less than three bowel movements a week or has difficulty having one — for example, if it hurts too much or if your child passes tough stool (or stool that feels like rocks). Constipation can cause hard stools or discomfort in your child’s abdomen when they have a bowel movement.
- Intestinal blockages are usually caused by swallowing something that shouldn’t be eaten (like small toys). Still, they can also happen after abdominal surgery or if your child has scar tissue in their digestive tract from previous surgery. It can cause severe pain in the abdomen as well as vomiting and diarrhoea.
- Some people lack the enzyme needed for digesting lactose and experience lactose intolerance in the form of bloating, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain when they consume dairy products.
When should my child see a doctor?
If your child is younger than six months old, contact a doctor right away if their belly looks swollen or distended (like a balloon being blown up). This could be from an intestinal blockage or other serious problem.
If your child is six months or older, call the doctor if:
- Pediatric abdominal pain lasts more than 1 hour and doesn’t go away with home treatment.
- Is accompanied by vomiting or blood in the stool or vomit.
These symptoms may be signs of appendicitis.
As a rule of thumb, you should see your doctor if your child:
- Is under three months old and has a temperature over 38°C (100.4°F)
- Has been sick for more than 48 hours with vomiting or diarrhoea (without fever)
- Is older than one year old and has a temperature of over 38°C (100.4°F) or has been sick for more than three days without improvement.
How is abdominal pain diagnosed in children and babies?
A doctor diagnoses abdominal pain in children and babies after a thorough physical examination, history and investigations.
Diagnosing abdominal pain starts with a medical history and physical examination. Your doctor will inquire about the timing and location of the pain and how long it lasts.
They’ll ask questions about recent nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea your child has experienced. Your doctor will also examine your child’s abdomen to look for signs indicating an underlying problem.
Paediatricians use special techniques to pinpoint the cause of stomach pain in children. Some of these techniques include:
- Imaging tests — Your child’s doctor may order an X-ray or ultrasound test to look for signs of internal problems, such as appendicitis or bowel obstruction.
- Blood tests — These can help rule out certain illnesses or infections, such as food poisoning or kidney disease. Blood tests may also monitor other conditions that cause abdominal pain, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
How do I take care of a child with abdominal pain?
The most common cause of abdominal pain in children is a viral infection. The pain can be severe and usually go away in a few days.
If your child has pain in the lower abdomen, here’s what to do:
- Don’t give any medication like paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain relief. Ecosprin also shouldn’t be given to children because the risks outweigh the benefits.
- If your child has trouble eating because of pain, offer clear liquids such as water or electrolytes to prevent dehydration. Avoid fatty foods like potato chips or fries.
Abdominal pain is a common problem among children, and multiple potential causes of acute, recurrent, or chronic abdominal pain exist.
If your child complains of abdominal pain unrelated to food poisoning or constipation, consult a pediatrician at the CK Birla Hospital, or book an appointment with Dr Anukalp Prakash to learn more about treatment options.
How do I know if my child’s stomach pain is serious?
It’s essential to understand the different types of lower abdominal pain in children and what they mean so that you can determine if your child needs urgent medical care.
Ask them the following questions:
- Is the pain sharp or dull?
- How long has the pain been going on?
- What makes it better or worse?
What are the signs of appendicitis in a child?
- Severe abdominal pain that comes on suddenly, often described as sharp or stabbing and localized just below the belly button (navel) and to one side or other.
- Nausea and vomiting, sometimes with diarrhoea; however, some children with appendicitis may not vomit.
- Loss of appetite.
- Fever and chills (not all children have these).
- Unexplained fatigue (tiredness).
- Frequent urination (peeing) because urine retention occurs when the pressure builds up inside.
What can I give my child for tummy pain?
- Give your child only medicine prescribed by your doctor.
- Give them plenty of liquids every hour.
- Talk to your doctor if your child is vomiting, has diarrhoea, has trouble eating or drinking, or feels sick to the stomach.
Why does my four-year-old keep complaining of a tummy ache?
Tummy aches are common in children. It’s essential to watch for signs (like a fever) that could signal a more serious problem and get help if needed.
If you don’t know when the fever started or how high it got (or if it came on suddenly), call your doctor immediately since it might be an infection that needs treatment.