By Dr. Linda Lau, M.D., FAAFP

Q: My daughter tends to have a lot of stomach problems. How do I know if it is just a regular stomach bug, a really bad virus, or even a parasite? Also, when should I see a doctor?

A: As a parent, it’s not easy to hear your teary-eyed child tell you, “My tummy hurts.”

Abdominal pain is very common in children. However, it can be especially challenging for parents to identify the type of pain, and whether it requires a visit to the doctor, or just extra TLC from mom and dad for a few days.

Stomach pain is not like a scrape or bump, where a parent can see the injury and take action, like putting on a bandage. On the contrary, there are many causes of stomach pain – from simple conditions, such as a viral infection, constipation, food allergies, or anxiety – to much more serious conditions such as appendicitis, bowel obstruction, and inflammatory bowel disease.

A stomach virus is usually associated with fever, body ache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The onset of symptoms is sudden, and it tends to spread quickly among anyone who comes into contact with the sick child. Normally, a stomach bug will usually improve in 4 to 7 days with plenty of rest and hydration.

It’s important for parents to ensure that their children are properly hydrated, especially when they aren’t feeling well. Four common signs your child is not hydrated include: the inability to keep down liquids, not urinating throughout the day, not producing sweat, and, for younger children, not producing tears. If you notice any of these signs, it’s time to book an appointment with your pediatrician or family physician.

A doctor will be able to diagnose the specific type of intestinal illness your child is facing, and recommend a course of action that will usually involve increasing fluids, and taking prescriptions that will relieve pain or treat an infection.

Unlike a stomach virus, an intestinal parasite tends to have prolonged symptoms over the course of a few weeks. Transmitted through contaminated food or water, children suffer uncomfortable, activity-limiting symptoms, including chronic bloating, indigestion, gas, and unpredictable diarrhea. A fever is usually absent, but nausea and vomiting can occur, albeit they’re usually intermittent. Typically, a visit to a doctor is necessary to not only diagnose the condition, but also determine the best way to treat it.

In either case, there are several red flags that warrant an immediate trip to the doctor for further evaluation. These warning signs are: bloody stool; dehydration; severe, persistent abdominal pain; high fevers; lethargy; changes in alertness or mental status; symptoms persisting over a week; or significant weight loss. If in doubt, it is always best to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician or general practitioner to evaluate the symptoms your child is exhibiting.

Dr. Linda Lau is a board-certified family medicine physician. She is also director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at Mountain Vista Medical Center, which offers high-quality residency training for future family medicine physicians. Mountain Vista Medical, part of IASIS Healthcare, is a 178-bed, full-service hospital, featuring all-private rooms and advanced medical technology. Designed to provide comprehensive health care services for residents of the East Valley, it is located in Mesa, just north of U.S. 60 at Crismon Road and Southern Avenue. For more information, visit mvmedicalcenter.com or call 1-877-924-WELL (9355).

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