Children will often complain of abdominal pain, almost as often as they have a runny nose. The causes of these pains are many and varied, and the likelihood of these will also change depending on your child’s age. Fortunately, most of the causes are not serious and will resolve by themselves. But what can you do and what should you be looking out for as a parent?
What can cause abdominal pains?
- Bowel (gut) problems – such as constipation, colic, mesenteric adenitis or irritable
- Infections – such as gastroenteritis (which causes vomiting and diarrhoea/runny poo) or
urine infections, or infections elsewhere including coughs
- Food related – too much food, food poisoning or food allergies and intolerances
- Surgical problems – such as appendicitis, hernias or a bowel obstruction
- Period pain – some girls can also have monthly pain before or during their period
- Problems outside the abdomen – Type 1 Diabetes, muscle strain or migraine
- Some children get abdominal pain because of stress
- Sometimes there is no identifiable cause for the abdominal pain
The causes of abdominal pain can be hard to diagnose. Often the cause is not apparent and the
symptoms may take some time to become obvious.
Signs and Symptoms
Abdominal pain can happen suddenly or develop slowly. Children often have other symptoms
that are associated with the cause of the abdominal pain, such as vomiting, diarrhoea and/or
fever. Children will often be off their food when abdominal pain is present.
Tests will often include a urine test – if you are able to collect a sample while your child is at
home in a more familiar environment this can be very helpful to your doctor. Sample
containers can be asked for at any pathology collection centre or medical centre. Even a boiled
glass jar will do. Giving your child some water to drink beforehand or even tapping them on the
tummy just above the pubic bone (especially in babies and toddlers) can often induce the child
to pass urine.
What can I do at home?
Here are some general ways to ease your child’s pain:
- Help your child drink a normal amount of fluids. Getting your child to drink is important
as it prevents dehydration (loss of water). Hydralyte™ is a great option especially when
given in ice-block form.
- If your child is hungry, let them eat what they want or offer bland foods such as
crackers, rice, bananas or toast. Do not force your child to eat if they feel unwell. They
will start eating again when they feel better.
- Encourage sitting on the toilet. Sometimes doing a poo helps to ease the pain.
- Rubbing a child’s tummy or having a distraction, such as reading a book, can sometimes
ease the pain.
- Give paracetamol if your child is in pain or is miserable. Carefully check the label for the
correct dose and make sure you are not giving any other products containing
paracetamol. Only give as directed. Avoid giving your child Aspirin for pain relief.
- Heat packs can also help ease the pain. Make sure you regularly check the temperature
and do not leave on for too long to avoid giving any burn injuries.
What should I expect?
Many children with abdominal pain get better quickly, without any treatment and often no
cause can be found. Sometimes the cause becomes more obvious with time and treatment can
be started. This is why it is important to see your local doctor for follow up, especially if they
are looking for a source of infection.
Repeated attacks of abdominal pain
Some children get repeated attacks of abdominal pain, which can be very worrying for parents.
Often no health problem can be found. Children may have abdominal pain when they are
worried about themselves or people around them.
Think about whether there is anything that is upsetting your child at home, at school,
kindergarten or with friends. See your local doctor for advice. A referral may be needed to a
paediatrician (a doctor who specialises in children) or gastroenterologist (a doctor who
specialises in tummy problems).
What to look our for
If pain or problems persist for more than 24 hours, take your child to your doctor. See your
local doctor or hospital as soon as possible if your child:
- Has severe pain (despite pain medication) or the pain has moved
- Has pain that returns frequently and regularly
- Does not want to move
- Has a swollen or bloated abdomen that is more tense than normal
- Has a fever (temperature over 38.5°C)
- Is pale, sweaty, lethargic (hard to wake) and unwell
- Is refusing to drink fluids
- Has been vomiting for more than 24 hours and not keeping fluids down, or their vomit is green
- Has blood in their vomit or faeces (poo)
- Has problems passing urine or hasn’t done a wee (less than four wet nappies a day)
- Has pain or lumps in their groin
- Has a skin rash which is sore or painful
- Has had a recent injury (for example, falling onto bike handlebars)
- Or if you are concerned for any other reason
Ultimately as a parent you should trust your gut! If you think something is wrong and you want
your child looked at then you should do so without hesitation. If the problem is not resolving, then please bring your child back for review. The benefit of having a regular GP is that they are
easily able to review problems over time rather than relying on a single snapshot.
This post has been written by Dr Stephen Loo BSc, MBBS, FRACGP, a General Practitioner at Smart Clinics for Kids That Go.
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