When Stomach Symptoms Mean Something More Serious

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
woman with stomach cramps

We’ve all had a stomachache. But how do you know when tummy troubles might mean a more serious health problem? 

Sometimes the answer isn’t so simple. Stomach pain from gastroenteritis, or “stomach flu,” may eventually pass without further problems. Then again, a recurring discomfort you ignore for months—or years—could become something that is life threatening. It’s important to take a closer look at when your stomach symptoms need medical attention.

Time to Call the Doctor

Stomach pain that signals something serious, such as cancer or gallstone complications, is often accompanied by other symptoms. It’s a good idea to call your doctor if you’re experiencing stomach pain with any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever and chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellowish color of the skin or white of the eyes)
  • Tea-colored urine
  • Urine that looks cloudy or smells foul 
  • Blood in urine or pain during urination
  • Light-colored stools or bloody stools
  • Intense, unrelenting pain in back or lower stomach
  • Stomach pain lasting more than 5 hours

When stomach pain is extreme and doesn’t go away, such as with kidney stones, you’re probably highly motivated to get medical help. But for other problems, symptoms can be vague, coming and going over a period of weeks or years. Let your doctor know if you keep experiencing any of the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Feeling tired
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement
  • Weight loss

If it turns out you have an irritable bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, it can do more than just cause discomfort. These chronic conditions can damage your intestinal tract and prevent you from getting needed nutrients. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can also increase your risk of colon cancer

Sometimes an IBD can be tricky to spot. It might go into remission for months or even years before recurring. Don’t ignore stomach symptoms that keep coming back. Tell your doctor about them so you can start living a healthier life. 

Time to Get Emergency Care

Some cases of stomach pain are even more urgent. For example, if you have appendicitis, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately. 

The pain of appendicitis is often described as stomach pain that:

  • Starts suddenly near your belly button and moves lower and to your right
  • Becomes severe in a matter of hours and gets worse when you move, breathe deeply, cough, or sneeze
  • Occurs before other appendicitis symptoms, such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, swelling in the abdomen, low-grade fever, constipation, or diarrhea

In addition, if you have severe diarrhea that isn’t letting up, or if you’re coughing or vomiting up blood, treat these as medical emergencies. Call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 10
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