Is It Crohn’s or Just an Upset Stomach?


Gastroenteritis (an intestinal infection or flu) shares many symptoms with Crohn's disease. Many different factors can cause or contribute to an intestinal infection, including:

  • foodborne illnesses
  • food-related allergies
  • bowel inflammation
  • parasites
  • viruses

Crohn’s disease is usually diagnosed when other potential causes of your symptoms have been ruled out. It’s important to fully understand the circumstances surrounding an upset stomach before assuming you have a medical condition.



The Stomach

The stomach is an organ located in the upper abdomen between the esophagus and the small intestine. The stomach performs the following functions:

  • takes in and breaks down food
  • destroys foreign agents
  • aids in digestion
  • sends signals to the brain when you’re full

The stomach also helps prevent infections by secreting an acid from its lining that acts on harmful bacteria that you may have consumed with a meal. 

Although most absorption of nutrients occurs in the small intestine, the stomach helps break down amino acids and absorbs simple sugars, such as glucose. It also breaks down certain medications, such as aspirin. A sphincter, or valve, at the bottom of the stomach regulates how much food enters the small intestine.


What Causes an Upset Stomach?

An upset stomach is characterized by swelling (inflammation) of the stomach lining and intestines. It is sometimes caused by a virus, although it may also be due to a parasite, or due to bacteria like salmonella or E. coli.

In some cases, an upset stomach is the result of an allergic reaction to a certain type of food. It also may be caused by an irritation. Sometimes this happens from consuming too much alcohol or caffeine. Eating too many fatty foods — or too much food in general — may also cause an upset stomach.


Crohn’s Disease

What is Crohn’s Disease?

Crohn’s disease is an ongoing (chronic) condition that causes the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to become inflamed. While the stomach may be affected, Crohn’s goes beyond this area of GI tract. Inflammation may also occur in the:

  • intestines
  • mouth
  • esophagus
  • colon
  • anus

Crohn’s disease can cause an upset stomach, but you’re also more likely to experience other related symptoms such as diarrhea and fatigue. Anemia and joint pain can occur as well.


Symptoms Associated with an Upset Stomach

Common symptoms of upset stomach may include:

  • abdominal pain
  • cramps
  • nausea (with or without vomiting)
  • an increase in bowel movements
  • loose stool or diarrhea
  • headache
  • body aches
  • chills (with or without fever)


Treatments for an Upset Stomach

Fortunately, most cases of upset stomach can be successfully treated without a trip to the doctor. Treatment should focus on oral fluid replacement and dietary management. Antibiotics may be used as well, if the stomachache is caused by bacteria.

Clear Liquids

The University of Wisconsin-Madison recommends a clear liquid diet for the first 24 to 36 hours of an upset stomach. Make sure to drink plenty of water or other clear liquid (2 to 3 liters per day). This means you should also avoid solid foods, caffeine, and alcohol.

Wait for one to two hours before attempting to drink a small quantity of water if vomiting accompanies an upset stomach. You can also suck on ice chips. If you tolerate this well, you may move on to other clear liquids, including non-caffeinated drinks, such as:

  • ginger ale
  • 7-Up
  • decaffeinated tea
  • clear broth
  • diluted juices (apple juice is best)

Avoid citrus juices like orange juice.


You may attempt to eat bland foods if clear liquids are tolerated. This could include:

  • saltine crackers
  • toasted white bread
  • boiled potatoes
  • white rice
  • applesauce
  • bananas
  • yogurt
  • cottage cheese

The American Academy of Family Physicians says you may begin to resume a normal diet if symptoms improve after 24 to 48 hours. Still, you should avoid certain foods until the digestive tract has fully recovered. This may take one to two weeks. You should avoid the following foods until your stomach is back to normal:

  • spicy foods
  • uncultured dairy products (such as milk and cheese)
  • whole grains and other high-fiber foods
  • raw vegetables
  • greasy or fatty foods
  • caffeine and alcohol


Acetaminophen can be taken to control symptoms such as fever, headaches, and body aches. Aspirin and ibuprofen should be avoided, as they may cause stomach irritation.

An over-the-counter bismuth subsalicylate (such as Pepto-Bismol) or loperamide hydrochloride (such as Imodium A-D) may be taken to control diarrhea and loose stool as well.



When to be Concerned About an Upset Stomach

Most symptoms of an upset stomach should subside within 48 hours if you follow the above treatment regimen. If they don't, Crohn's disease is only one of a number of possible conditions that may be the culprit.

You should consult a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms along with an upset stomach:

  • abdominal pain that doesn't improve after either a bowel movement or vomiting
  • diarrhea or vomiting that persists for more than 24 hours
  • diarrhea or vomiting at a rate of more than three times per hour
  • fever of over 101 degrees that doesn't improve with acetaminophen
  • blood in stool or vomit
  • no urination for six or more hours
  • lightheadedness
  • rapid heartbeat
  • inability to pass gas or complete a bowel movement
  • pus drainage from the anus



Despite the numerous possible causes of an upset stomach, the symptoms do eventually go away with time and proper care. The difference with Crohn’s disease is that the symptoms keep coming back without warning. Weight loss, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps can also occur in Crohn’s. If you experience persistent symptoms, it’s a good idea to see a doctor to get to the bottom of it. Never self-diagnose chronic symptoms of any kind. There is no cure for Crohn’s disease, but it may be treated with medications and lifestyle changes.

  • Where do people with Crohn's typically experience pain?- From our Facebook community
  • Crohn’s disease affects the entire gastrointestinal tract, from the mouth to the anus. However, the crampy pain associated with Crohn’s, ranging from mild to severe, is generally in the final part of the small intestine and the large colon.

    - Mark R. LaFlamme, MD