Sick Stomach Meaning, Causes, Symptoms, Diet

What is a sick stomach?

A ‘sick stomach’ or ‘sick to the stomach’ is a common term used to describe a range of stomach and gastrointestinal symptoms. It is not a specific disease and can refer to a range of different symptoms. In most cases however, a sick stomach includes symptoms such as nausea, bloating, upper abdominal pain or cramps and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea as well. Therefore it may refer to conditions such as gastritis, acid reflux, peptic ulcer disease and gastroenteritis among a range of other conditions.

The term ‘sick stomach’ is often used by children who cannot describe the exact symptoms they are experiencing. In the absence of diarrhea or vomiting, parents will very often not be able to notice much else other than a lack of appetite and the child’s reporting of feeling unwell usually in the abdominal area. Sudden onset of a sick stomach is usually not serious. Often it is due to an acute digestive condition and often resolves on its own with little or no treatment.

Causes of Sick Stomach

A number of different digestive conditions that may cause symptoms described as sick stomach. The more common of these conditions include:

  • Gastritis is a condition where the stomach wall is inflamed often due to H.pylori infection or the excessive use of certain prescription medication like NSAIDs.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known commonly as acid reflux, is a condition where the acidic stomach contents flows backward up into the esophagus. This back flow is due to a malfunctioning LES (lower esophageal sphincter).
  • Peptic ulcer disease (PUD) is a condition where open sores (ulcers) form in the wall of the stomach or duodenum (small intestine). It occurs for many of the same reasons as gastritis, namely severe H.pylori infection and continuous use of NSAIDs.
  • Hiatal hernia is a condition where a portion of the stomach moves into the chest cavity through the esophageal opening in the diaphragm. This abnormal position is usually temporary and the stomach eventually moves back into a normal position.
  • Gallstones is one of the common types of gallbladder disease. It occurs when stones form in the gallbladder, usually from the constituents of bile, and then obstruct the bile duct.
  • Pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed. It may be acute or chronic. The pancreatic enzymes are abnormally activated within the pancreas thereby causing extensive tissue damage.
  • Intestinal obstruction is where there is a blockage somewhere within the bowel. This prevents partially digested food from moving through the bowels.
  • Lactose intolerance is where the body cannot digest the milk sugar lactose due to deficiency of the enzyme lactose. Many other food intolerances and malabsorption syndromes can also cause similar symptoms.
  • Gastroenteritis is a common acute gastrointestinal condition usually due to viruses, bacteria or toxins. Viral gastroenteritis is often referred to as a stomach flu while toxin exposure is known as food poisoning.

Signs and Symptoms

A number of signs and symptoms may be collectively termed as a sick stomach. Sometimes it can be simply ascribed to indigestion. However, there be other symptoms that are not typically seen with indigestion, like diarrhea.

  • Nausea is a feeling of wanting to vomit.
  • Vomiting is a violent expulsion of the upper gastrointestinal contents.
  • Heartburn is a burning sensation felt in the chest.
  • Bloating is a sensation of fullness.
  • Abdominal cramps is a cramping in the abdominal region. There may also be abdominal pain.
  • Excessive gas which may include belching or flatulence.
  • Diarrhea is passing stool more than 3 times in a day and it is usually large volume watery stool.

Most symptoms like cramping, pain and bloating are experienced in the left upper quadrant of the abdomen. This is where most of the stomach is located but can also extend to the epigastric region (upper middle abdominal area). A lack of appetite, weight loss in long standing cases, fatigue and malaise (general feeling of being unwell) may also be present.

If the symptoms persist for more than a few days, progressively worsen or is associated with other more serious symptoms then immediate medical attention is necessary. In these cases a sick stomach should not be managed at home with OTC medication and dietary changes.

Diet (Foods to Eat and Avoid)

Treatment for a sick stomach depends on the cause. Sometimes medical treatment is not necessary as is the case with viral gastroenteritis where most cases resolve spontaneously within a few days. However, dietary changes can help for some of the conditions that cause a sick stomach.

Foods to Avoid

  • Dairy can irritate the stomach especially for people who are lactose intolerant. Sometimes secondary lactose intolerance occurs for a short period after gastroenteritis.
  • Soda and energy drinks may be a problem in that it can irritate the stomach and may even worsen diarrhea by drawing water out of the body and into the bowels.
  • Caffeinated beverages like tea and coffee should also be avoided as it can irritate the stomach, increase acid production and speed movement through the bowels.
  • Gassy foods like broccoli, cabbage and beans should be avoided so as not to exacerbate belching and flatulence which are some of the symptoms that appear with a sick stomach. More of these foods are discussed under gassy stomach.
  • Processed foods that are heavily laden with preservatives and colorants should also be limited or avoided as it can worsen many of the causative conditions of a sick stomach.
  • Alcohol must be avoided as it can irritate the stomach, worsen acid reflux and exacerbates dehydration which is more likely to occur with profuse vomiting and diarrhea.

Foods to Eat

A fluid diet should be avoided unless a person is vomiting after any food intake. However, once vomiting subsides a solid diet should be resumed as soon as possible. Sometimes the BRAT diet is a good transition option before returning to solid foods. This includes bananas (mashed), rice, applesauce and toast. The BRAT diet is a temporary measure. It is important to maintain a balanced diet, preferably of freshly-prepared foods with minimal seasoning to ensure adequate nutrition.