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Abdominal pain (or belly pain) in children is a common problem. About 1 out of 3 children is seen by a doctor for abdominal pain by the time they are age 15, but only a small number of these children have a serious problem.
Complaints of abdominal pain are more common in children younger than 11 years and are often caused by changes in eating and bowel habits. Most cases of abdominal pain are not serious, and home treatment is often all that is needed to help relieve the discomfort.
Abdominal pain in children is often frightening and frustrating for parents. Many times it is hard to find the exact cause of a child's abdominal pain. Pain without other symptoms that goes away completely in less than 3 hours is usually not serious.
In children, abdominal pain may be related to injury to the abdomen or an illness, such as an upset stomach, an ear infection, a urinary tract infection, or strep throat. Abdominal symptoms can also occur from an infection passed on by animals or while travelling internationally. Constipation is a common cause of abdominal pain in children. Some more serious causes of abdominal pain in children include appendicitis, lead poisoning, or problems with the intestines, such as intussusception or malrotation. Girls who start having menstrual periods may have abdominal pain each month, and the pain may be more severe in some months than others.
Generalized pain occurs in half of the abdomen or more. Localized pain is located in one area of the abdomen. Babies and toddlers often react differently to pain than older children who can talk about their pain. A baby may become fussy, draw his or her legs up toward the belly, or eat poorly. Older children may be able to point to the area of the pain and describe how severe it is.
Abdominal pain can occur one time, or it can occur repeatedly over several months. Recurrent abdominal pain (RAP) is a condition that affects children ages 5 to 11.
Check your child's symptoms to decide if and when your child should see a doctor.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in children are:
With cramping pain in the belly:
Temperature varies a little depending on how you measure it. For children up to 11 years old, here are the ranges for high, moderate, and mild according to how you took the temperature.
Oral (by mouth), ear, or rectal temperature
A forehead (temporal) scanner is usually 0.3° C (0.5° F) to 0.6° C (1° F) lower than an oral temperature.
Armpit (axillary) temperature
Note: For children under 5 years old, rectal temperatures are the most accurate.
A baby that is extremely sick:
A baby that is sick (but not extremely sick):
Babies can quickly get dehydrated when they lose fluids because of problems like vomiting or fever.
Symptoms of dehydration can range from mild to severe. For example:
You can get dehydrated when you lose a lot of fluids because of problems like vomiting or fever.
Severe dehydration means:
Moderate dehydration means:
Mild dehydration means:
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
Pain in children 3 years and older
If you're not sure if a child's fever is high, moderate, or mild, think about these issues:
With a high fever:
With a moderate fever:
With a mild fever:
An illness plan for people with diabetes usually covers things like:
The plan is designed to help keep your diabetes in control even though you are sick. When you have diabetes, even a minor illness can cause problems.
It is easy for your diabetes to become out of control when you are sick. Because of an illness:
Blood in the stool can come from anywhere in the digestive tract, such as the stomach or intestines. Depending on where the blood is coming from and how fast it is moving, it may be bright red, reddish brown, or black like tar.
A little bit of bright red blood on the stool or on the toilet paper is often caused by mild irritation of the rectum. For example, this can happen if you have to strain hard to pass a stool or if you have a hemorrhoid.
A large amount of blood in the stool may mean a more serious problem is present. For example, if there is a lot of blood in the stool, not just on the surface, you may need to call your doctor right away. If there are just a few drops on the stool or in the diaper, you may need to let your doctor know today to discuss your symptoms. Black stools may mean you have blood in the digestive tract that may need treatment right away, or may go away on its own.
Certain medicines and foods can affect the colour of stool. Diarrhea medicines (such as Pepto-Bismol) and iron tablets can make the stool black. Eating lots of beets may turn the stool red. Eating foods with black or dark blue food colouring can turn the stool black.
If you take aspirin or some other medicine (called a blood thinner) that prevents blood clots, it can cause some blood in your stools. If you take a blood thinner and have ongoing blood in your stools, call your doctor to discuss your symptoms.
Many prescription and non-prescription medicines can cause belly pain or cramping. A few examples are:
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may occur quickly after a sudden illness or injury.
Babies and young children often have several symptoms of shock. These include:
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
Most of the time, a child's abdominal pain will get better with home treatment and the child will not need a visit to a doctor.
Home treatment for abdominal pain often depends on other symptoms that are present with the pain, such as diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting. See the Related Information section of this topic for information on some of these other symptoms.
Try the following, one at a time in the order listed, if your child has mild abdominal pain without other symptoms:
If the measures above do not work, you may also try these:
If your child’s abdominal pain keeps coming back on a regular basis or is getting worse, it may be helpful to ask your family doctor for a referral to a specialist for further consultation.
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
Abdominal pain in children can often be prevented.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your child's condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
Other Works ConsultedCampo JV, et al. (2004). Recurrent abdominal pain, anxiety, and depression in primary care. Pediatrics, 113(40): 817–823.
Adaptation Date: 11/19/2021
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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