How Do I Know if My Stomach Pain Is Serious?

Signs and symptoms that warrant a trip to your healthcare provider or the ER

Stomach pain can have many causes. Most of them aren't serious, but some are, and you need to be able to recognize the warning signs.

If you rest, avoid certain foods, take medication, or use a heating pad, you may get relief from some kinds of pain. For others, you may need urgent medical care.

This article offers some at-home remedies, but also presents symptoms that mean you should contact your healthcare provider. It also explains why some symptoms point to a true emergency.

When is stomach pain an emergency?

Verywell / JR Bee

When Stomach Pain Is an Emergency

Sometimes stomach pain is mild at first but gets worse after a few hours. You may also develop other symptoms.

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms along with stomach pain:

  • Extremely hard abdomen
  • Abdominal tenderness when touched
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Vomiting that won't stop
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Trouble breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Inability to have a bowel movement, along with vomiting
  • Pain in the neck, shoulder, or between shoulder blades
  • Vision changes

If you have these symptoms, call for an ambulance or have someone drive you to the ER. You should not "wait and see" or take medicine for the pain. Get help right away.

When stomach pain is associated with these other symptoms, it may be caused by a life-threatening condition. Some examples of these conditions include:

These emergencies usually cause pain that feels extreme. Other circumstances in which you should discuss stomach pain with a healthcare provider include when:

  • You're pregnant
  • Your pain started within a week of abdominal surgery
  • Your pain started after a procedure in your stomach area, like an endoscopy
  • You have ever had surgery on your digestive tract, like a gastric bypass, colostomy, or bowel resection
  • Your pain started shortly after an abdominal trauma
  • Your abdomen is bruised or rapidly expanding
  • Excessive vaginal bleeding, or blood clots and bleeding longer than usual
  • You have rectal bleeding, or tarry-looking or bloody stool

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Some kinds of stomach pain need immediate attention. With others, you can call or visit your healthcare provider. It can be hard to know what you should do. Listen to your body and trust your instincts if you're not sure.

If you have any of these symptoms along with stomach pain, call your healthcare provider within one to two days:

  • Burning with urination
  • Urgent need to urinate
  • Blood in the urine
  • Pain, discomfort, or nausea when you eat
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than five days
  • Fever above 100 degrees
  • Fever for three days or longer
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain that gets worse or doesn't get better within one or two days

You should also call your healthcare provider if you have stomach pain while being treated for cancer.

Stomach Pain in Children

Stomach pains are common in children. Causes include indigestion, stress, or more serious cases like appendicitis. Stomach pain of three hours or less is usually not severe. Call your healthcare provider immediately if a child has a fever of 100.4F or other symptoms such as diarrhea that could lead to dehydration.

How to Manage Stomach Pain

If your stomach pain is not severe or long-lasting, and if you're not having symptoms like those mentioned above, the pain may go away on its own.

This pain is often caused by minor problems such as constipation, gas, or something you ate. Waiting a few hours, having a bowel movement, or passing gas may help.

Try taking these steps:

  • Limit yourself to clear liquids for a few hours.
  • If you have vomiting or diarrhea, stick with the BRAT diet. Eat mild foods until you feel better.
  • Avoid foods that are hard to digest. Fatty, fried, or spicy foods can cause stomach pain. So can drinks containing alcohol or caffeine.
  • Try an over-the-counter antacid or a product to relieve gas.
  • Try to have a bowel movement. Eating raw fruit, vegetables, beans, or high-fiber cereal can help.
  • Use a hot water bottle or heating pad. Place the pad on your abdomen for a half hour at a time, with a towel under the pad to protect your skin.

Your symptoms may improve within a day or two. If they do not, call your healthcare provider.

Summary

Stomach pain may mean you have an urgent medical problem like appendicitis or a blockage or leak in your intestines. A hard stomach, vomiting, bleeding, dizziness, or fainting are signs of a medical emergency when they happen with stomach pain.

If you're pregnant, being treated for cancer, or have had an abdominal procedure or trauma, don't wait. Go to the emergency room right away.

Call your doctor if you have other symptoms such as fever or diarrhea with stomach pain. You may have a health condition that needs treatment. Otherwise, you may be able to try some home remedies to ease the pain.

A Word From Verywell

Stomach pain is very common. When the pain is severe, it can be alarming. Because there are so many causes, it can be hard to figure out whether it is serious or not. If you are not sure whether your stomach pain is serious, it is best to seek medical attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes lower abdominal pain?

    Lower abdominal pain can have lots of different causes. Colitis, appendicitis, cystitis, kidney stones, trapped gas, menstrual cramps, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are some possibilities.

  • What is the difference between acute and chronic abdominal pain?

    Acute abdominal pain comes on suddenly. It may be severe and is usually due to a short-term condition. Chronic pain is long-term. It often comes and goes and is due to a chronic condition like IBS.

  • Can I take painkillers for stomach pain?

    You can, but choose wisely. Avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen), or Aleve (naproxen). These can irritate your stomach lining and cause ulcers. Tylenol (acetaminophen) tends to be easier on the stomach.

  • How do I know if my appendix burst?

    If appendicitis is not treated right away, your appendix may rupture, or burst. This can happen as early as two to three days after you start to develop symptoms. If your appendix has burst, the pain feels like it has spread all over your stomach.

  • Can COVID-19 start with stomach pain?

    Stomach pain can be an early symptom of COVID-19, but there are usually other symptoms that accompany it. These include persistent cough, joint and muscle pain, and loss of smell.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Lohsiriwat V. Anorectal emergenciesWorld J Gastroenterol. 2016;22(26):5867-5878. doi:10.3748/wjg.v22.i26.5867

  3. Michigan Medicine. Abdominal pain, age 11 and younger.

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Where to turn for pain relief - acetaminophen or NSAIDs?.

  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Appendicitis.

  6. Canas L, Sudre C, Capdevila Pujol J, et al. Early detection of COVID-19 in the UK using self-reported symptoms: a large-scale, prospective, epidemiological surveillance study. The Lancet Digital Health. 2021;3(9):e587-e598. doi:10.1016/s2589-7500(21)00131-X

Additional Reading

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.