Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

Your Health

‘My tummy hurts’: Determining the source of complaints

If you’re a parent, you’ve likely heard your child complain about a tummy ache or headache. You may also know it’s not always easy to determine the source of these complaints, or how to best help your child.

Like adults, children get headaches and stomachaches for a variety of reasons. The pain may indicate an illness such as a virus, step throat or sinus infection, or the discomfort may have other triggers. In most cases, the pains are fleeting, but if they do become regular, it’s important to determine the cause.


Let’s start with headaches. Anything that throws your child off-kilter can cause a headache, including extreme hunger or thirst, lack of sleep, stress and hormonal changes. Specific foods, such as aged cheese, chocolate, seafood or food additives such as MSG may trigger headaches. Other triggers may include seasonal or weather changes; sensitivity to light, sound, movement or smells; or schedule changes – even good ones like adjusting to a vacation.

In many cases, a combination of factors leads to a headache. For example, your daughter might be fine with one night of poor sleep, then get a headache after a second night of lost shut-eye.

If you’re having trouble determining the cause of your child’s headache, it may help to keep a headache diary to help pinpoint activities, foods or other potential triggers.

If your child’s headache is accompanied by a high fever, stiff neck and incoherent or confused behavior, seek immediate medical attention. Also, see a doctor right away if your child suffers from a headache due to a head injury.

Migraine headaches may require prescribed medication, but the best treatment for the common headache is sleep. Over-the-counter pain medications such as Advil or Motrin, a cool cloth across the forehead or a gentle massage on the temples may also help relieve discomfort.


Another common childhood complaint is the stomachache. One of the most common causes for chronic recurring abdominal pain is constipation. Eating triggers the reflex to go to the bathroom and may cause painful cramps in the lower part of the stomach if your child is constipated. The best treatment is to drink plenty of liquids and eat lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Another frequent cause of stomach pain is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. Symptoms include burning, stinging sensations in the stomach or in the area above the belly button, or complaints that something tastes funny. You can try an over-the-counter antacid medication like TUMS. It may also help to eat smaller meals; steer clear of fried, fatty and spicy foods; avoid constrictive clothes; and use additional pillows to elevate the upper body during sleep.

If your child has diarrhea, gas or bloating after eating, this may indicate lactose intolerance. If the pain is severe, a doctor’s visit is in order. Likewise, severe pain starting around the belly button and moving off to the right of the stomach may indicate appendicitis, which requires immediate medical attention.

Again, in the case of stomachaches it may help to keep a diary to identify triggers. Stress could be a contributing factor. If the child’s pain only occurs on school days and not during the weekend, you might want to investigate and address any issues at school.

I hope these tips help the next time your child comes to you with a tummy ache or headache.

Dr. Paul Protter is a pediatrician at the Sunnyvale Center of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. For more information, visit pamf.org.

The Palo Alto Medical Foundation and column editor Arian Dasmalchi provide this monthly column.

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