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Health Tips for Parents

2005 Issues

How serious is a stomachache?


Stomachaches - although a common childhood complaint - can indicate a mild to more severe condition. With proper vigilance, parents can monitor symptoms to know when medical attention may be needed. Location, severity and duration of pain all are important symptoms to note. Until a diagnosis is made, do not give a child any medicines (including pain medicine or laxatives) without consulting a doctor, notes Dr. Marvin Ament, chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA. Some common causes of abdominal pain include:  


Stool that is hard, dry and difficult to pass - known as constipation - is a major cause of abdominal pain in toddlers through preteens. Modifying the child's diet may help. Try natural therapies first: prune and apple juice, or pear and apricot nectar all can help soften the stool. Dr. Ament recommends giving the child with constipation four to eight ounces of juice or nectar each day. Also, fruits - fresh, dried or canned - that can ease constipation include prunes, plums, apricots, grapes, cherries and pears, some of which are available in pureed form for infants. Talk to your doctor before using stool softeners. Seek medical advice for persistent constipation, accompanied by severe pain or vomiting.

Diarrhea and Vomiting

Viruses, bacteria, parasites or foods that are hard to digest often cause diarrhea and vomiting. To prevent dehydration when a child has episodes of vomiting, try oral rehydration solutions available over-the-counter. Dr. Ament discourages the use of remedies to stop diarrhea, since these can interfere with the body's natural response to rid the body of toxins or infectious organisms. "If the amount of vomit or diarrhea increases and the frequency of urination decreases, a child may be dehydrated and he or she should see a doctor," Dr. Ament says. Signs of dehydration include dark urine, decreased volume and frequency of urine, dry mouth or excessive thirst. See a physician immediately if blood is present in the stool or vomit, or if the abdomen is distended with vomiting, which may indicate an intestinal blockage.

Food Intolerance

Abdominal pain can also indicate that the stomach and intestine are having a tough time breaking down or digesting a certain food - either from overeating, eating spicy or greasy food, being allergic to a certain food, or eating spoiled food. For example, recurring pain can be caused by intolerance to an ingredient in milk called lactose, which some people have difficulty digesting. A symptom of lactose intolerance is abdominal cramping after consuming milk, soft cheese, pizza or ice cream, Dr. Ament notes.

Signs of a Serious Problem

Seek medical attention for constant abdominal pain or cramping, or pain associated with vomiting, diarrhea, blood in vomit or stool, constipation, or burning sensation during urination. Other symptoms requiring medical attention include:

  • Persistent fever
  • Constant vomiting, or vomiting with great force
  • Pain in the belly button area that moves to the lower right side of the abdomen (this may be a sign of appendicitis)

This information is provided courtesy of the pediatricians at the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. UCLA Healthcare pediatricians are conveniently located in your neighborhood. In addition to our Children’s Health Center in Westwood, we have offices in Brentwood, Culver City, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and West Los Angeles. Additional information can be found on the UCLA Healthcare web site at www.healthcare.ucla.edu or by calling 1-800-UCLA-MD1 (1-800-825-2631).

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