When to See a Doctor for an Upset Stomach
Learn what your gastrointestinal symptoms may be caused from and when they require a visit to the doctor.
If you've had it, you never want it again. It's a terrible feeling, being tethered to the toilet. In the midst of the diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting, you wonder what caused you to get this sick. Food could be the culprit. Just in case, you vow never to eat hamburgers again. Maybe it's a virus or something else causing this. You have no idea what's at the root of your symptoms. You just want them to end. You may need to see a doctor.
What causes "stomach virus?"
Although it's sometimes called "stomach flu," it's not at all related to influenza. But the cause of this gastrointestinal illness can be tough to pinpoint. Whether it's food poisoning, a virus or something else, the symptoms are miserable.
You may never know what made you sick. Your doctor may take a stool sample if your symptoms are severe or hanging on, but even that test may not be able to confirm what's ailing you.
If you have diarrhea, stomach pains or vomiting, wash your hands often to prevent spreading the illness to others. These symptoms may be caused by:
- Bacterial infections are often the cause of food poisoning. These germs get into foods and water and make you sick if you eat or drink them. Common offenders include Salmonella and E. coli.
- Viral infections. Viruses spread easily from person-to-person. Rotavirus is common in young children, especially those in day care. Norwalk virus is often the cause of outbreaks on cruise ships.
- Parasites, such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia, are often found in untreated water. Never drink untreated water from a lake, river or pond.
- Food intolerance. Some people can't tolerate foods made with artificial sweeteners, lactose or gluten. They have symptoms after they eat foods containing these ingredients.
- Digestive diseases and disorders. Longer-lasting symptoms could signal uncontrolled Crohn's disease, celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome.
- Side effects of medications. Certain medicines - blood pressure drugs, cancer treatments, antibiotics and antacids - list diarrhea as a possible side effect.
Watch for dehydration
When you have diarrhea and vomiting, it is important to prevent dehydration. Water and electrolytes are lost through diarrhea and vomit. Your body can't function without these nutrients. To prevent dehydration:
- Sip on fluids or suck on ice chips.
- Drink more than just water to replace the lost electrolytes. Broth-based soups, fruit juices and sports beverages all contain water and electrolytes. Your doctor may suggest an over-the-counter rehydration product.
- It is especially important to watch for dehydration in children and the elderly. Dehydration is much more serious for them. Signs of dehydration in a child may include:
- Dry mouth
- No tears when crying
- No wet diapers for three hours or more
- Sunken abdomen, eyes or cheeks
When should I see the doctor?
Seek immediate medical care if you are having diarrhea and:
- Are very ill
- Are in severe pain
- Have a fever of 104 degrees F or higher (100.4 degrees F or higher in a child 12 weeks old or younger)
- Are dizzy or passing out
- Have stool that is bloody, tarry or maroon colored
- Are severely dehydrated
Also, call your doctor at once if you have diarrhea and:
- A body temperature of 101.5 degrees F or more or have shaking chills.
- Are unable to keep any liquids or food down.
- If the diarrhea lasts more than 3 days. All children should see a doctor if they have diarrhea that doesn't go away after 24 hours.
Some people are at greater risk from diarrhea and should call their doctor right away. This includes young children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with chronic medical problems or those with weak immune systems. Also, call your doctor if you have just returned from a foreign country or have recently started a new medicine.
How is "stomach virus" treated?
Most bacterial and viral infections will clear up without treatment after a few days. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic if you have a bacterial infection. Antibiotics do not work on viruses.
Do not try an over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicine unless told to do so by your doctor.
If your GI symptoms are chronic, your doctor will do tests to find the underlying cause. Once the cause is treated, GI symptoms should subside.
How is it prevented?
To reduce your risk of stomach and intestinal illness:
- Wash your hands before eating and after using the bathroom, touching an animal, changing a diaper and caring for someone who is sick.
- Cook all foods to their recommended temperatures.
- Rinse all fruits and vegetables before eating them.
- Keep uncooked foods separate from ready-to-eat foods.
- Chill leftovers right after serving.
- Do not drink or brush your teeth with tap water in foreign countries.
- Do not eat or drink anything made with unpasteurized milk.