Is it just an upset stomach or something worse? | California Blue Shield


Do you know a child or teenager with frequent stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea or other digestive problems? If so, you are not alone. Many young people suffer from digestive issues that can be caused by anxiety, stress or other mental health issues, which have soared during the pandemic.

Chronic digestive problems should be brought to the attention of a doctor, especially if they are accompanied by weight loss, fever, bleeding or other worrying symptoms, said Dr Malaika Stoll, Senior Medical Director of Blue Shield of California.

Dr Malaika Stoll

“The doctor can order labs and studies to test for certain diseases,” Stoll said. “Often all of these tests will come back negative, leaving families without a clear diagnosis and wondering what they can do to help.”

For children without serious problems, a good next step is to take a look at the diet. For a caregiver, this may include helping a child or adolescent identify and avoid foods that can trigger symptoms. Additionally, remember that stress, anxiety, and other mental and emotional factors can also contribute to digestive issues.

“Our mind and our gut are connected,” Stoll said. “That’s why we get butterflies in our stomachs before a big party, and why our appetite is affected by our mood and stress levels. This is normal, but sometimes teens need help understanding and dealing with this connection.

Talk about what’s going on

Parents and children don’t always speak openly about what is going on emotionally, and some parents may not recognize that their children are stressed, anxious, or facing mental health issues.

If stomach pain is accompanied by diarrhea and / or constipation and these symptoms occur over several months, it may be irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.

“This condition can be associated with stress or anxiety,” Stoll said, and it’s very common in teenagers, affecting 15-20% of them. While parents can look for an easily treatable cause of intestinal symptoms, such as infection, IBS can take a long time to diagnose and treat.

Stoll, a family doctor with three teenagers, urges parents to empathize and keep an open mind about what may be contributing to their child’s digestive issues.

Dr. Stoll’s advice for helping a child with other digestive issues:

  • Some upset stomachs are normal, but if your child has an upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation that occurs frequently for a few months, see a doctor to rule out infections or allergies.
  • If your child loses weight, has a fever, or other worrying symptoms, see a doctor right away. If you are concerned that a child has an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, seek professional help immediately.
  • To learn more about how your child is doing emotionally, choose an appropriate time – not when your child has just come home from school or studying for an exam – to ask them how they are doing with school, their friends. or its extracurricular activities. This can be followed by more specific questions, for example: “Are there any situations that make your abdominal symptoms worse?” »Help your teen become more aware of their health, mood, and triggers.
  • Consider having your teen keep a journal of when symptoms occur and if they are related to certain foods, times of the day, classes, or activities. Eliminating trigger foods and reducing the causes of stress can help relieve symptoms.
  • Make sure your teen is getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly, which can help with digestion and reduce stress.
  • Sleep and meditation apps like Headspace (available on Blue Shield’s digital Wellvolution platform) can help reduce stress too, and teens love the apps.
  • In addition to seeing a doctor, consider therapy as a way to teach coping skills and reduce stress.

“Mental health is just as important as physical health, and with COVID we have seen a sharp increase in mental health issues. Unfortunately, there is still sometimes a stigma around emotional and mental health, whether it’s someone’s fault or signs of weakness. We must work hard against this misinformation.

For more information on understanding depression and anxiety in children and adolescents, please visit Blue Shield’s BlueSky website. BlueSky is a multi-year initiative to support youth mental health, in collaboration with the California Department of Education and major nonprofits. It provides access to middle and high school clinicians, trains educators in the detection of mental health issues, and provides students with in-person and online mental health resources. You can also visit Blue Shield of California’s mental health page here.


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