Canceling your plans to sit on the toilet is basically…the worst. Especially when you’re not sure whether you should chug ginger ale, head straight to the ER, or just get comfy on your throne and let nature, um, run its course.
Well, your plan of attack will depend on what you’re dealing with: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, a period from hell, etc. You get it, but in case you need a reminder, here are some common symptoms of stomach aches, which can occur whenever there’s irritation of the stomach lining, says Henry Herrera, MD, a gastroenterologist at DHR Health Gastroenterology in Texas.
- Abdominal pain
- Excessive belching
- Excessive flatulence
- Loss of appetite
While a painful tummy may have you reaching for the nearest remedy ASAP, it’s important to rule out things that won’t work. There’s a lot of misinformation out there on how to treat a stomach ache.
That bottle of ginger ale, for instance? You may want to skip it and opt for some ginger tea instead. Ginger ale can actually make stomach pain worse thanks to its bubbles and sugar, which can feed the bad bacteria making you sick. Lemon water? Yeah, skip that too. “Keep in mind that acidic foods also tend to be associated with increases in reflux symptoms,” says Dr. Herrera.
If you’re feeling a rumble down below and aren’t sure how to *properly* get rid of your stomach ache, opt for one of these remedies.
Mild stomach aches can go away on their own if you just give them time. But waiting it out can also be useful when you’re dealing with crazy diarrhea, which could be a symptom of mild food poisoning.
While this can totally strike at your neighborhood sushi joint, it’s also super-common while traveling overseas. That’s because your body has to adjust to the new bacteria in the food and water you’re consuming while away from home.
Unfortunately, the cure is just waiting it out. “You need to let your body flush itself,” says Amit Bhan, MD, a gastroenterologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
Gas is caused by two things: eating gas-forming foods such as green vegetables, fruits with peels on them, carbonated beverages, cabbage, and beans; or by swallowing air, says Michael Wolfe, MD, chief of gastroenterology at Boston University’s School of Medicine.
“People [take in extra air] when they drink with straws, talk with their mouths full, eat too fast, or when they’re nervous,” Dr. Wolfe says.
If you have a gas problem that you think is causing your stomach pain, take an over-the-counter anti-gas drug like Mylanta Gas. Beano, Dr. Wolfe says, is another good product, especially if veggies aren’t friendly to your system—it works by breaking down raffinose, a sugar byproduct in plants that can be a bugger for many people to digest.
If diarrhea strikes at an inconvenient time, or if it’s so frequent that it keeps you from sleeping, Dr. Bhan recommends knocking back some Pepto-Bismol. The pink liquid will attack the diarrhea-causing bacteria in your system so you can sleep and function during the day. You can also take imodium, which works by slowing down the speed at which fluids move through your intestines.
Here are a few treatment options that you can find at your local pharmacy:
- Simethicone (Gas-X) helps relieve uncomfortable bloating.
- Antacids (Alka-Seltzer, Rolaids, Tums) neutralize stomach acid to reduce burning feelings.
- Acid-reducers (Pepcid) reduce the production of stomach acid for up to 12 hours.
- Beano helps prevent gas.
- Antidiarrheals (Imodium) stop diarrhea and its associated symptoms.
- Lansoprazole and omeprazole (Prevacid, Prilosec) block acid production and help heal the esophagus when taken daily.
- Pepto-Bismol coats the lining of the esophagus to reduce burning and treat nausea and diarrhea.
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) fights symptoms associated with an allergic immune response and helps treat nausea and vomiting.
- Laxatives and stool softeners relieve occasional constipation and associated bloating.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) relieves pain without irritating the stomach like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can.
- Probiotics aid in overall digestive health by introducing more good bacteria into your system.
- Fiber supplements (Metamucil, Benefiber) help produce normal bowel movements and prevent constipation, though they can cause gas and bloating.
If you deal with constant stomach issues like bloating, yogurt can help keep your digestive system in tip-top shape.
Though annoying, bloating is not a huge cause for alarm. “Don’t be too worried,” says David C. Metz, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Anything from menstruation to constipation can cause it.”
Try to stay away from salt, since it makes you retain water, and avoid foods that cause gas—such as beans, broccoli, and cauliflower. As long as you’ve ruled out lactose intolerance, try eating yogurt with “live and active cultures” (look for this phrase on the label), which can help regulate your digestive system.
Sometimes stomach aches can cause other pains, like heartburn, an irritation of the esophagus that feels like a burning or tightness from stomach contents that are forced back up into the esophagus.
At at-home remedy: milk. “When I have heartburn, I drink a glass of milk,” says Jeffry A. Katz, MD, a gastroenterologist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. “Milk neutralizes the acid produced by the stomach,” he says.
Eating spicy foods before bed is a common culprit of acid reflux, as is eating too much or too fast, smoking, and imbibing heavily. But sometimes nearly anything can make you feel the burn and deal with a stomach ache.
“This condition often hits at night, when you’re in the lying-down position,” says Minh Nguyen, MD, of Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Acid travels from the stomach to the esophagus and throat, often causing heartburn, or a sore throat and bouts of coughing.
Dr. Nguyen recommends a prescription medicine or an over-the-counter antacid like Prilosec. But if you don’t want to rely on drugs, cut back on the known provocateurs.
A simple cure may be waiting for you in your spice rack: Ginger root has a long history of being used successfully as a cure for an upset stomach.
The reason ginger works so well for digestion has never been precisely identified, but some say it speeds up the pace at which food moves into the small intestine from the stomach.
“[When] I’ve eaten too much and feel nauseated, I’ll have ginger tea to soothe my stomach,” says Charlene Prather, MD, an associate professor of gastroenterology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “It’s really easy to make—I just grate fresh ginger in water and add a little honey and it takes care of it,” she says.
There’s no sugar-coating this one: If you feel pain after eating, you likely ate too fast, too much, or the wrong thing.
The quick fix: Cut out fast food, and eat more slowly. If you’re not a junk-food junkie and are still feeling pain after a meal, it’s unlikely, but you could have gallbladder disease. “Women more often than men get it, and some get gallstones for no reason,” says Francisco Marrero, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic. See your doctor to rule it out.
One of the biggest stomach myths is that you have to go number two three times a day to have healthy bowels.
The truth? Everybody poops, but not with the same frequency. Still, constipation is very common in women, says Irwin Grosman, MD, gastroenterology chief at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. “There’s a theory that there’s a hormonal difference between men and women, and [that] women take longer to digest and eliminate food.”
If you don’t go every day, don’t sweat it. But if you’re experiencing other symptoms of constipation, such as bloating or gas, the simplest thing you can do is increase your fiber intake. Eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans, and kick-start your day with a high-fiber cereal.
Inactivity can sometimes cause constipation too. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise per day and keep yourself hydrated. If all that doesn’t keep things moving, try a gentle over-the-counter fiber supplement like Metamucil.
If you’re dealing with green poop and an upset stomach, these might be the culprit. “Our dietary vegetable intake is usually the cause for our green stool. Stomach aches in this setting can usually be remedied by avoiding the major gas-producing vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts,” says Dr. Herrera.
The digestive system’s natural contractions are felt more severely on an empty stomach. Without food, the stomach becomes a sort of gastric echo chamber.
Hunger pangs serve a handy purpose: They’re like a text message from the stomach to the brain indicating that it’s time to pursue nourishment.
The fix for this: Eat. But beware, because in rare cases an achy stomach could also indicate more than hunger. “Sometimes people sense a burning pain that gets better when you eat,” says Mark Babyatsky, MD, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “That could be an ulcer. If it persists, see a physician. If you’ve always had it, it could be just your appetite,” he says. Babyatsky advises that you stay full by eating more small meals throughout the day.
Sometimes a digestive disease, like gastritis or a peptic ulcer, may be to blame for indigestion. But more commonly, chronic indigestion is known as functional dyspepsia—or indigestion without a known health problem behind it, per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
After ruling out any underlying health conditions with your doctor, an OTC antacid should help dissipate the discomfort, says Rita Knotts, MD, gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health.
If you’re searching for a more long-term solution, Dr. Knotts recommends trying cognitive behavioral therapy or acupuncture, since the indigestion could be caused by stress.
Burping is actually a natural reflex response to increased gas in your system, Dr. Knotts says. Foods or beverages that promote gas (think: carbonated beverages) may be to blame.
Dr. Knotts suggests avoiding bubbles, so swap soda or beer for water or wine. Try to keep portions of fiber-heavy foods small and eat slowly so your body can better break them down.
When you go for a run (or really, do any type of tough workout), you might feel that little pinch of pain in your side. That’s typically musculoskeletal pain caused by dehydration or eating too much before you started busting a move, says Dr. Knotts.
So drink up. Water should help cure your ache. And next time, before you begin exercising, Dr. Knotts suggests making sure you had some time to digest. Give yourself at least an hour (better yet, a couple) after a meal before you start breaking a sweat.
Chamomile can bring relief to symptoms of an upset stomach, including nausea and vomiting.
It contains bisabolol, which has anti-inflammatory properties and relaxes the smooth muscle lining of the digestive tract,” says Dr. Herrera. Chamomile also has other compounds like azulene, chamazulene, and matricin, which give the herb anti-inflammatory properties.
Thanks to their menthol content, both of these can soothe the pain of a stomach ache. Menthol has been show to relax the muscles in the GI tract, says Dr. Herrera.
But if you’re experiencing acid reflux, it’s best to avoid these, he adds. “It can worsen reflux by relaxing the sphincter which keeps stomach contents out of the esophagus.”
Just can’t seem to go? Aloe can serve as a laxative, which is helpful for people who have stomach pain due to constipation, says Dr. Herrera.
Aloe juice may provide relief to those dealing with acid reflux by reducing the frequency of the symptoms associated with the condition, found a 2015 study published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Figs are chock full of fiber, which helps promote bowel movements in people who struggle with stomach aches due to constipation, says Dr. Herrera. In that way, they tend to act as a natural laxative.
Fiber can aid the digestive system in a variety of ways from adding bulk to stool to promoting the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
“This diet has been shown to be effective in managing stomach pain and bloating in patients with irritable bowel syndrome because it eliminates many gas-producing foods,” Dr. Herrera says.
A low-FODMAP diet can possibly alleviate the symptoms of stomach aches, bloating and other gastrointestinal problems by limiting your intake of fermentable carbs. (This is an elimination diet, so you want to do this under the supervision of a health care provider.)
This is especially important for people who are prone to acid reflux. “Laying down [too quickly] will result in stomach contents moving into the esophagus, which results in an unpleasant feeling of pressure or pain, along with a bitter taste,” says Dr. Herrera.
“Warm water has been used for relieving stress, which can often manifest as a stomach ache in many patients. It also helps relax tense muscles which can be present after a stressful day,” says Dr. Herrera.
It may even help to add a bit of Epsom salt to it. “When epsom salt is placed in water, it dissolves, releasing magnesium. Some researchers believe that magnesium helps increase serotonin in the brain, which is involved in relaxation,” Dr. Herrera adds. Though more research is still required, some there are studies linking magnesium to the reduction of stress and anxiety.
Unless it’s severe, stomach pain isn’t always a sign that you need to head to a doctor. But when it’s coupled with other problematic symptoms like blood in your stool, rectal bleeding, paleness, weight loss, difficulty swallowing, yellowing of the eyes, and severe nausea or vomiting, then it’s best to go see your doctor immediately.
“While most people think of a stomach ache synonymously with gastritis, it’s important to understand that viscerally, pain in your abdominal area can be caused by a variety of disease processes which are not limited to the stomach,” says Dr. Herrera. In rarer cases, abdominal pain can signal issues with other organs including the gallbladder, intestines, pancreas, or may be a sign of cancer or infection.
If you’re experiencing abdominal pain that’s worrying you, get into the doctor’s office as soon as you can or schedule an appointment with your gastroenterologist so they can rule out anything serious.