A young boy lies in bed and appears uncomfortable.
If your child complains about an aching belly, it’s important to watch for other signs that could indicate something more serious. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

“My tummy hurts!”

It’s something we have all heard our children say.

Oftentimes, we think it’s just the result of a bug going around, but sometimes your child’s stomachache can really signal that something else is going on.

“We all know our kids get those acute stomachaches with flu bugs and viruses,” said Deborah Cloney, MD, section chief of pediatric gastroenterology with Spectrum Health Medical Group. “But sometimes the pain can be really persistent and become a more chronic problem.”

When your child complains of abdominal pain, look for symptoms of serious illness. Persistent diarrhea or vomiting, continued fever or weight loss are all signs your child may have something more serious than a flu bug.

Another red-flag symptom may include your child’s abdominal pain waking him or her up in the middle of the night, or your child not participating in normal activities—missing many days of school or not wanting to play with friends.

“Fortunately, the most common cause of the chronic abdominal pain is what we call functional abdominal pain, which means there’s not actually a disease process behind it,” Dr. Cloney said. “It really is a pure symptom. It’s still very frustrating, but there’s nothing scary going on, like ulcers or things of that nature. The tough part about functional abdominal pain is there’s not a test we can do for it.”

Although there isn’t a test to diagnose functional abdominal pain, Dr. Cloney said a thorough history and physical examination are helpful in ruling out potential causes. This includes looking at possible sources of anxiety or stress, which can be contributing factors of chronic abdominal pain.

Parents can also take action to help prevent chronic abdominal pain in their children. Dr. Cloney suggests children:

  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Eat fiber-rich foods
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Get enough sleep
  • Avoid caffeinated or carbonated beverages

If your child suffers from frequent abdominal pain, Dr. Cloney’s recommends you call your doctor.

“It’s really good to start with your primary physician, because so often there are things they can address very easily,” she said. “However, if that’s not working or your primary physician feels something more significant is going on, we always welcome seeing patients in our office.”