Stomach pain and nausea are common health complaints in both children and adults.
Causes can range from overeating and anxiety to infection and gastrointestinal disorders.
Stomach pain and nausea can be either acute or chronic. Acute means that symptoms are short-lived and may come on suddenly. Chronic means that the condition is persistent.
In this article, we look at some of the acute and chronic causes of stomach pain and nausea. We also discuss self-care, when to see a doctor, medical treatment, complications, and prevention.
Causes of acute stomach pain and nausea can include:
- inflammation of the stomach lining
- side effects of certain medications, such as antibiotics and cancer treatments
Viral gastroenteritis is a common cause of stomach pain and nausea. Although people often refer to this condition as “stomach flu,” it is actually an infection of the intestines and does not involve the flu virus.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), viral gastroenteritis usually lasts less than a week and gets better without medical treatment. However, frequent vomiting and diarrhea can lead to severe dehydration, which is particularly dangerous in children and older adults. People with symptoms of dehydration should seek prompt medical attention.
Gastroenteritis can also result from eating contaminated food, which can allow harmful bacteria, viruses, or parasites to enter the body. The symptoms of food poisoning are similar to those of viral gastroenteritis, and people should see a doctor if they develop dehydration or their symptoms become severe.
Acute bouts of stomach pain and nausea can be common in children, and stress and anxiety can sometimes be causative factors. If a child complains about an upset stomach before a test or competitive sports event at school, this may be a sign of anxiety. Helping the child cope with stress and anxiety may also help reduce stomach problems.
Causes of chronic stomach pain and nausea can include:
Gastritis is an inflammation of the stomach lining. This inflammation can be acute or chronic. In addition to stomach pain and nausea, gastritis can also cause vomiting.
The most common cause of gastritis is infection with a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Other causes include damage to the stomach lining, potentially from alcohol or the frequent use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which include ibuprofen and aspirin.
Obstructions in the intestines can cause stomach pain, vomiting, bloating, and constipation. Intestinal obstructions can lead to serious complications if a person does not receive treatment.
Causes of intestinal obstructions can include:
- adhesions, which are bands of tissue that can form following surgery
- inflammatory bowel disease
Functional gastrointestinal disorders
These are a group of disorders in which the gastrointestinal tract does not work as it should, and there are visible structural problems.
IBS can cause abdominal pain or cramps as well as bloating and either diarrhea or constipation. The symptoms of functional dyspepsia can include pain in the upper abdomen, nausea, and vomiting.
According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, functional gastrointestinal disorders affect about one in four people in the United States.
Other chronic causes
Other causes of chronic stomach pain and nausea can include the following:
- pregnancy can cause nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain, particularly in the early stages
- central nervous system problems, including migraine headaches, intracranial pressure, seizures, and strokes, can cause nausea
- inner ear problems, such as infections and inflammation, can cause dizziness and nausea
- stress, anxiety, and depression can lead to stomach problems in some people
Stomach pain and nausea are often short-lived and get better on their own. However, persistent symptoms may be a sign of a more serious condition.
The NIDDK recommend that people see a doctor if their indigestion, which can cause symptoms such as stomach pain and nausea, lasts for more than 2 weeks.
People should see a doctor right away if any of the following symptoms accompany abdominal discomfort:
- frequent vomiting or blood in the vomit
- diarrhea that lasts for more than 2 days
- bloody or black and tarry stools
- pain in the chest, arm, neck, or jaw
- difficulty breathing or swallowing
- unexplained weight loss
Stomach pain and nausea usually resolve without treatment in a few days. However, resting and drinking plenty of fluids can aid recovery.
People experiencing frequent diarrhea, vomiting, or both will need to replace lost fluids and electrolytes to avoid dehydration. Drinks that can help with this include:
- clear broths
- sports drinks
- fruit juices
The type of medical treatment for stomach pain and nausea will generally depend on the underlying cause and the severity of the symptoms.
For people with severe diarrhea or vomiting, a doctor may prescribe an oral rehydration solution to treat dehydration. They may also prescribe antiemetics, which are drugs that can help counteract nausea and vomiting.
If a doctor suspects that a person may have gastritis or another type of gastrointestinal disorder, they may order medical tests, such as an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy.
People with gastritis due to H. pylori infection are likely to have to complete a course of antibiotics.
Dehydration is a common complication of conditions that cause severe vomiting or diarrhea. Signs of dehydration can include:
- dry mouth
- dark urine and urinating less than normal
- no tears when crying
- sunken cheeks or eyes
- feeling lightheaded or dizzy
Other potential complications of stomach pain and nausea depend on the underlying cause. For example, anemia is a possible complication of erosive gastritis, due to the chronic bleeding that the condition causes in the stomach.
Viral gastroenteritis and food poisoning are common causes of stomach pain and nausea. Good hygiene can help prevent these health issues.
Good hygiene is key to avoiding many germs that can cause stomach pain and nausea. People can try adopting the following practices as standard:
- washing the hands frequently with soap and water, particularly after using the bathroom and before and after handling food
- storing, cleaning, and preparing food carefully and correctly
- cooking or reheating food thoroughly
- disinfecting contaminated surfaces
- handling soiled clothes and bedding carefully and always washing them thoroughly
Stomach pain and nausea are common symptoms in both adults and children. Causes can include overeating, intestinal infections, stress and anxiety, and chronic gastrointestinal disorders.
Stomach pain and nausea are usually short-lived and get better on their own. However, people with persistent symptoms should see a doctor for an evaluation.
It is important for people whose symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Individuals with symptoms of dehydration should seek prompt medical care.