- Stomach aches are common health symptoms that can have many possible causes.
- Gas and constipation, lactose intolerance, IBS, and food poisoning can all cause stomach pain.
- Talk to a doctor about frequent stomach aches or sudden, severe pain that worsens or comes and goes.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Stomach pain can range from a mild inconvenience to persistent pain that affects your daily life. Some causes of acute, or sudden, stomach pain, like appendicitis, can also require emergency medical care.
If you have frequent stomach aches and aren’t sure what to do about them, it’s important to know that most cases are treatable once the underlying condition is determined, says Khapra.
Here are seven causes of stomach aches and some tips for treatment.
While gas is a normal part of the digestive process, too much gas can cause stomach pain, cramping, and bloating.
Excess gas can be caused by:
If you have uncomfortable, persistent gas, a good first step involves taking stock of your diet, especially your intake of sweet and starchy food.
With constipation, you may:
- Feel tightness, cramping, or sharp pain in your abdomen
- Have to strain when having a bowel movement
- Feel like your bowel movements are incomplete
- Experience nausea
OTC laxative products can also help regulate bowel movements. These include:
- Fiber supplements
- Osmotic laxatives, which help draw water into the colon
- Stool softeners
- Lubricants such as mineral oil
If you have chronic constipation — symptoms occurring longer than three months — checking in with your doctor is a good idea. They can help you identify potential causes and offer more guidance on helpful treatments, including medication or, in more severe cases, biofeedback therapy to train the muscles involved in bowel movements.
You can try reducing gastritis symptoms by:
- Cutting back on alcohol and tobacco intake
- Avoiding stomach-irritating foods, especially acidic and spicy foods
- Eating smaller meals
- Using no more than the recommended daily dose of NSAIDs
If, after a week of trying the above treatments, your symptoms still persist, then schedule an appointment with your doctor, who may recommend tests to help diagnose your symptoms and identify helpful treatments.
Gastritis treatment can depend on the cause. A healthcare professional may prescribe medications such as:
- Antibiotics for gastritis caused by H. pylori
- Proton pump inhibitors, such as Prilosec, to reduce acid production
- Acid inhibitors, such as Pepcid, to reduce acid in your digestive tract
- Antacids, like Tums, to neutralize stomach acid
4. Lactose intolerance
- Abdominal pain and cramping
Lactose intolerance is very common — it affects up to 68% of adults in the world, in fact. It occurs most frequently among people from East Asia and American Indians, but it also commonly affects people of West African, South Indian, Mediterranean, Hispanic, and Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
Your doctor can conduct a hydrogen breath test to evaluate whether you can digest lactose.
There will likely be some amount of foods with lactose you can consume without discomfort. To test this, eliminate lactose from your diet for two weeks, then slowly reintroduce products with lactose to check what types of food — and how much — bring back your symptoms.
5. Food poisoning
The most common signs of food poisoning include:
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Nausea and vomiting
Cases of severe food poisoning can be treated by
or anti-parasitics, but in most cases you will get better on your own. Recovery typically takes between one and 10 days. While you’re waiting, avoid dehydration by:
- Drinking water, even if you can only tolerate small amounts
- Replacing electrolytes lost from vomiting and diarrhea by drinking sports drinks, broths, and fruit juice diluted with water
Food poisoning usually gets better without medical treatment, but it’s best to connect with a healthcare professional for severe symptoms, including:
- A fever above 102°F
- Inability to keep liquids down due to excessive vomiting
- Bloody diarrhea or diarrhea lasting more than three days
- Dehydration signs such as lack of urination, dizziness, and a severely dry throat
6. Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, refers to two conditions — Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis — both of which cause significant, chronic inflammation in the digestive tract, says David Poppers, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health.
The symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Upset stomach
- Gas and bloating
- Low appetite
- Mucus in stool
Dietary changes can help reduce inflammation in the digestive tract and manage symptoms of IBD. Your doctor may recommend a low-residue diet, which contains very little fiber or difficult-to-digest foods like grains, raw fruit and vegetables, and nuts and seeds.
Medications for IBD include anti-inflammatories, immune modulators, and biologics — all of which can help relieve inflammation in your digestive tract, says Poppers.
7. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a common condition affecting between 7% to 16% of people in the United States. There’s no clear cause of IBS, but certain foods and medications, as well as stress and anxiety, are known to trigger symptoms.
With IBS, there’s a disruption with the connection between your brain and digestive system. This can cause your colon to contract frequently, which leads to:
- Cramping in the lower abdomen
- Excess gas
- Frequent or inconsistent bowel movements
There are three types of IBS:
- IBS-C, in which constipation is more common
- IBS-D, in which diarrhea is more common
- IBS-M, in which both diarrhea and constipation occur
There is no definitive test for IBS, so a doctor or clinician will typically diagnose the condition based on your symptoms after ruling out other possible causes. Popper says treatment options include:
When to connect with your doctor
Popper recommends contacting a doctor about stomach pain when it’s severe, lasts more than a few days, doesn’t improve with OTC treatments, or if the pain interferes with your sleep.
You should always check in with your doctor if you experience:
- Frequent nausea or vomiting
- Unexpected weight loss
- Rectal bleeding
- Stool that is black or narrow in shape
- Significant change in the frequency or appearance of your bowel movements
Stomach aches are common, but once you determine what’s causing them, the right treatment can go a long way toward helping you get lasting relief.
You can start treating a stomach ache on your own with OTC medication or diet and lifestyle changes. If you’re having trouble finding the trigger, or an effective remedy, your doctor can offer more support with narrowing down the cause of your pain and recommending effective treatments.