Abdominal pain and diarrhea that occurs at the same time can be caused by a variety of factors. These can include indigestion, a viral infection such as the stomach flu, or an intestinal disease. It’s important to pinpoint the cause of your symptoms. That will determine which medications, home remedies, and tips you can try to help treat and prevent abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Abdominal pain is pain that originates between the chest and the pelvis. Abdominal pain can be cramp-like, achy, dull, or sharp. It’s often called stomachache. Diarrhea is characterized by stool that is loose, bloody, or fatty. The need to go to the bathroom is frequent. It sometimes accompanies abdominal pain.
Most people occasionally experience abdominal pain and diarrhea for short periods. Dietary changes, consuming too much alcohol, and indigestion may cause these symptoms.
Frequent, constant, or severe abdominal pain and diarrhea may indicate a disease or a more serious medical issue. Diarrhea that gets progressively worse and is bloody can be also be a sign of a more serious issue. Possible causes of abdominal pain and diarrhea include:
- viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
- bacterial gastroenteritis (food poisoning)
- food allergies
- PMS (premenstrual syndrome)
- irritable bowel syndrome — a common disorder affecting the digestive system
- lactose intolerance — the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and some other dairy product
- fecal impaction
- intestinal obstruction
- West Nile virus
- parasites (like giardiasis, amebiasis, or hookworm)
- bacterial infection (for example, shigellosis or E. coli)
- drug allergies
- celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- cystic fibrosis
- stress and anxiety
- some forms of cancer
Causes of acute abdominal pain and diarrhea
Indigestion, the stomach flu, and food poisoning are common causes of acute diarrhea and abdominal pain. In these cases, symptoms last for less than four days and often resolve without medical treatment.
Infections or diseases that affect the organs in your abdomen can also cause pain with diarrhea. Organs in the abdomen include your:
Diarrhea and abdominal pain that last for more than a week or that frequently reoccur may be a sign of an intestinal disease or disorder. You should talk to your doctor if you’ve experienced these symptoms for more than a week or on a reoccurring basis.
The above conditions and disorders can cause swelling (inflammation) of various parts of the digestive tract, such as the stomach and intestines. Inflammation of the digestive system can cause cramps and disrupt normal digestive processes. This usually results in abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Causes in children
As in adults, abdominal pain and diarrhea in children are commonly caused by the stomach flu, infections, food allergies, lactose intolerance, and stress. But eating too much can also cause these symptoms. Some children may have trouble telling the difference between when they’re hungry and when they’re full. This can cause them to overeat. Overeating places stress on the digestive system, which can cause abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Causes in pregnant women
Pregnant women are especially prone to abdominal pain and diarrhea. One common reason is that many women make dietary changes when they find out they’re pregnant. This can cause digestive distress. Some women may develop sensitivities to particular foods. This can include those that they eat on a regular basis, resulting in abdominal pain and diarrhea. On top of that, hormone changes in your reproductive system that occur during pregnancy may also cause these symptoms.
Call your doctor
Seek medical help for anyone who experiences abdominal pain and diarrhea that last for three days, if the pain grows increasingly severe over a 24-hour period, or is accompanied by any of these symptoms:
- frequent nausea or vomiting
- a sustained fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit (100.4 degrees for children)
- stool that contains blood or dried blood (which looks like wet coffee grounds)
- an inability to keep food down
- extreme thirst or dry mouth
- an inability to speak or see
- mental confusion or loss of consciousness
- yellowing of the skin or eyes
- swelling of the genitals
- external bleeding
Diarrhea can be more dangerous for infants, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems. In these cases, discuss symptoms with a medical professional.
To determine the cause of abdominal pain and diarrhea, your doctor will first perform a physical exam. They’ll also ask some questions about your health history and lifestyle. Traveling to certain countries may increase your risks of digestive disease. Be sure to mention any recent trips overseas. The doctor will also ask questions about any recent changes in your diet.
Your doctor may perform a stool culture, in which they’ll send a sample of your feces to a lab to check for bacteria, viruses, and parasites. If this comes up negative, they may run a more complete analysis of your feces to look for possible digestive disorders.
Other common diagnostic tests include:
Endoscopy: In an endoscopy, a doctor sends a camera down your throat and into your stomach to check for problems, such as ulcers and signs of celiac disease.
Colonoscopy: A colonoscopy involves sending a camera into the rectum and intestines to check for signs of damage and signs of disease, such as ulcers and polyps.
Lower GI (gastrointestinal) tract radiography: In a lower GI tract radiography, a technician will perform a real-time X-ray of the abdomen. This occurs after your doctor injects a barium-based contrast material into the rectum to check for intestinal obstructions and other conditions.
Medical treatments can help address the underlying condition causing your abdominal pain and diarrhea. If your symptoms are caused by stress or need to be managed, home remedies can help.
The type of medical treatment you’ll receive for your abdominal pain and diarrhea depends on the underlying condition causing your symptoms. Treatments for some of the more common causes of these symptoms include:
- antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, including food poisoning
- prescription allergy medications
- antidepressants to treat stress and anxiety
- prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to treat PMS
- anti-parasitic drugs to kill parasites
It’s important for people experiencing abdominal pain and diarrhea to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of clear liquids, such as water, juice, and broth. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
As bowel movements become more regular, eat small amounts of low-fiber, mild foods. These types of foods include plain toast, rice, and eggs. Avoid spicy, high-fat, and high-fiber foods. They can worsen inflammation in the digestive system.
Probiotics may help your digestive system heal. Natural probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt. Probiotic supplements are also available.
Many over-the-counter medications and herbal supplements can ease stomach pain and diarrhea caused by infections or indigestion. Herbal supplements that some people find helpful include:
- lemon balm
Consult with a pharmacist or your doctor for advice on their use. Always follow package instructions when taking over-the-counter medications.
To cope with stress and anxiety, try meditation. Yoga, deep-breathing, and other relaxation techniques may help. You may also want to try talking to a therapist.
Not all conditions that cause abdominal pain and diarrhea can be prevented. Follow these dietary tips to help prevent indigestion and stomach upset:
- eat a well-balanced and nutritious diet
- limit alcohol
- limit spicy and fatty foods
- drink plenty of water
Washing hands frequently can prevent some viral infections that cause these symptoms.
People traveling may experience “traveler’s diarrhea” and stomachache. Bacterial or viral infection caused by contaminated food or water is the usual cause.
When traveling in areas with lower sanitation standards, be careful about what you eat and drink. Avoid tap water, ice cubes, and raw foods (including peeled fruits and vegetables). The Centers for Disease Control lists disease warnings and travel advisories on its travel health website. Consult this list as well as your doctor before traveling abroad.