Maybe you find yourself hunched over in pain after chugging a chocolate shake. Or you feel like you’ve swallowed a bowling ball—only to realize you haven’t pooped in 3 days.
Stomach problems can take on all kinds of forms, and none of them are pleasant. Here are 5 common reasons why you might be in pain, and what you should do to find relief.
1. Stomach Flu
The technical name is gastroenteritis—though when you’re running to the bathroom every 5 minutes, you probably don’t give a hoot what it’s called. This viral infection is often passed on when a sick person handles your food without washing their hands after using the bathroom.
What it feels like: Abdominal cramping and pain, coupled with muscle aches or a headache. It’ll usually come with nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, or low fever.
What you should do: Rest, stay hydrated, and stick with light foods like bananas or toast if you even have an appetite. Call your doctor if you can’t keep liquid down for 24 hours, have blood in your vomit or diarrhea, or have a fever above 40 degrees,which could be signs of a bacterial infection.
2. Lactose Intolerance
If eating ice cream leaves you, well, screaming, you may have lactose intolerance, or the inability to digest the milk sugar lactose. And you’re not alone: Roughly 65 percent of the world’s population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. People commonly develop symptoms as they reach adulthood.
What it feels like: Cramping—plus an urgent need to hit the bathroom— about 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming dairy. It also comes with diarrhea, gas, and bloating.
What you should do: Steer clear of milk-based foods that seem to trigger symptoms. You can talk to your doctor about getting tested to see how much lactose you can tolerate.
But it’s okay to experiment on your own to see if you can tolerate small amounts of milk—especially low-fat or nonfat—or dairy products that contain less lactose, like yogurt or some hard cheeses. Many people with lactose intolerance can.
Gallstones are small, hardened deposits of digestive fluid that form in your gallbladder. They’re common—more so in women than in men—and can develop from eating too much fat or cholesterol.
What it feels like: Discomfort or pain in your upper right stomach that radiates toward your back or shoulder. It might wake you up at night. You may also experience nausea or vomiting.
What you should do: If it’s just mild discomfort that goes away, you don’t need to call the doctor. But if you start to notice a pattern that persists for several weeks, or if you have severe pain or vomiting, talk with your doctor. You may need to have surgery to remove your gallbladder.
Going less than usual, or not at all? Congrats! You’re constipated, which can happen when you eat too little fiber, stay sedentary, or experience changes to your daily routine, like travel somewhere. Certain medications, like antacids or antidepressants, can also be culprits.
What it feels like: You have the urge to go, but nothing comes out. (Or all you get are a few small, hard, and dry stools.) You might feel a dull pain in your lower abdomen, along with some bloating.
What you should do: Gradually increase your fiber intake by adding more whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables to your diet. Aim for 25 to 30 grams per day. If that doesn’t help—or if you experience severe pain, bloody stool, cramping, or weight loss, see your doctor. Those could indicate that your belly problems are a sign of something more serious, like inflammatory bowel disorder.
An ulcer is a sore in the lining of your esophagus, stomach, or intestines. Stress can make ulcers worse, but they probably don’tcause them. Instead, ulcers can develop when you take over-the-counter (OTC) pain meds like ibuprofen or aspirin frequently, or from bacterial infections.
What it feels like: A burning pain in the pit of your stomach. You may also feel worse after eating or feel full fast, as well as experience acid reflux, sudden weight loss, or bloody stools.
What you should do: At-home care may be enough to treat mild ulcers. Reduce the amount of acid in your stomach by avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods; stop taking any OTC pain meds; and start taking an OTC antacid. Call your doctor if you’re not feeling better in a few days, or immediately if you have blood in your stool. That could indicate that your ulcer is bleeding.