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30th June, 20218 min read

How do I know my stomach pain is serious?

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Dr Ann Nainan
Last reviewed: 01/07/2021
Medically reviewed

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When should I worry about stomach pain?

Whether it’s a sharp pain that comes and goes or a dull ache that’s there all the time, everyone gets some kind of stomach pain (abdominal pain) at some point in their lives.

In most cases, it isn’t serious and gets better within a few days. Sometimes, however, it is serious – but it’s not always easy to tell the difference between stomach pain that needs medical attention and a stomach ache that will get better on its own.

The good news is there are a few clues that can help you work out what may be causing your stomach pain and if you need to see a doctor.

Read on to discover how to tell if your stomach pain is serious – but remember that if you’re ever unsure or concerned, it’s best to check with a doctor.

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When is stomach pain an emergency?

While the type of pain and its location can provide clues about how serious your stomach pain is, sometimes the biggest clue that you need immediate medical attention lies in the other symptoms you may have at the same time.

Call an ambulance or go to an emergency department if you have stomach pain and:

  • you feel dizzy or like you might faint
  • the pain started suddenly, feels really bad or suddenly becomes worse (e.g. changes from a dull ache to a stabbing pain)
  • the pain is in a specific part of your stomach (abdomen)
  • your stomach feels very hard and makes it hard for you to move
  • you have chest pain and/or it’s hard to talk or catch your breath
  • your skin or the whites of your eyes have turned yellow (jaundice)
  • you can’t pass wind (fart) or poo
  • your poo looks very dark (like tar), has blood in it or has an unusual foul smell
  • you’re vomiting blood or something that looks like coffee grounds
  • your stomach hurts a lot when you touch it
  • you have a very high or low temperature, feel generally unwell or have other signs of sepsis
  • you’re pregnant or think you may be pregnant

These symptoms suggest you may have a very serious cause of stomach pain, like an infection, bleeding from your gut, a blocked gut, bladder or kidney stones, or an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

But bear in mind that while these are the most common serious symptoms to look out for, they aren’t the only ones. If you have stomach pain that feels like an emergency, call an ambulance or go to the emergency department immediately.

When to see a doctor as soon as possible for stomach pain

Some causes of stomach pain aren’t immediately life-threatening, but they still need medical attention within 24 to 48 hours.

See a doctor as soon as you can if you have stomach pain and:

  • it worries you, but you don’t have the urgent symptoms listed above
  • the pain is getting worse or keeps coming back
  • you have trouble swallowing food
  • you’re losing weight without meaning to
  • you’re peeing more or less than you normally do
  • it burns when you pee or you have blood in your pee
  • you have vaginal discharge that looks or smells unusual
  • you have diarrhoea that hasn’t gotten better after a few days

Again, this list doesn’t cover every possible sign to watch out for, and everyone is different – which means some serious causes of stomach pain may show up differently in some people. That’s why it’s worth speaking to a doctor if you’re not sure if your stomach pain is anything to worry about.

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Less serious causes of stomach pain

Some causes of stomach pain are common, short-lived and can usually be managed with self-care. Here are 5 to watch out for.

Food poisoning

Food poisoning can cause stomach pain that may feel like cramps – that’s stomach pain that comes and goes in waves. It usually also causes diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting, and the pain may get better after an episode of diarrhoea.

Stomach ache caused by food poisoning usually gets better on its own within a few days, but there are a few things you can do to help treat food poisoning.

Period pain

If period pain is to blame for your stomach pain, the pain may feel like cramps in the lower part of your tummy. Period pain usually starts around the same time as your period does (this may be a few days before or after your period). It may feel worse a day into your period, but it usually gets better within a few days.

You can often manage period pain with simple painkillers, like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), but speak to your pharmacist or doctor for advice on how to safely get and use these medicines.

Read more about how to manage period pain.

Indigestion

Stomach pain caused by indigestion is usually in the upper part of your tummy. If you have indigestion, you may also feel sick (nausea) and have heartburn (a burning sensation in your chest) or feel bloated after eating.

You can manage the symptoms of indigestion with medication, like antacids (which reduce the acid in your stomach), and by making changes to your diet and lifestyle. But it’s important to see a doctor if you have ongoing indigestion or it doesn’t get better with lifestyle changes.

Read more about what causes indigestion and how to treat it.

Trapped wind

Trapped wind is another common cause of stomach pain. It can make you feel bloated and pass more wind (fart) than normal. Like indigestion, you can often relieve trapped wind by making simple lifestyle changes. Try to eat smaller meals more often, exercise regularly and drink peppermint tea.

Some medications can also help relieve the trapped wind. Speak to a pharmacist for advice on the best ones to try.

Here are some more tips for getting rid of trapped wind.

Constipation

When you have constipation, you may not poo as often or completely as normal, and your poo may be really hard. You may also feel bloated and sick. There are many ways to naturally relieve constipation and any stomach pain it’s causing, including drinking more fluids and adding more fibre to your diet.

If your symptoms don’t get better with these changes, laxatives can help, but speak to a pharmacist for advice on how to safely take these.

These are just a few common causes of stomach pain that can usually be managed at home with self-care. If you’re not sure whether one of these less serious causes is the reason why you have a stomach ache, speak to an online doctor today to find out the most likely cause and what to do about it.

What to expect after having stomach pain

In most cases, stomach pain isn’t serious and gets better within a few days. If you have a more serious cause of stomach pain, it may take longer for you to feel better and you may need treatment – sometimes in hospital.

Because stomach ache can be caused by so many things, it’s important to avoid guessing the cause of your pain. If you’re worried about the pain or not sure what's causing it, speak to a doctor as soon as possible.

Key takeaways

  • there are lots of different causes of stomach pain and some are more serious than others
  • if your pain feels really bad or you also have other worrying symptoms, go to an emergency department immediately
  • minor causes of stomach pain can usually be managed with self-care treatments – a pharmacist can help you with this
  • if you’re unsure about what’s causing your pain, get advice from a doctor

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