Stomach Cramps: Causes and Treatments

If you’ve ever had a sudden, uncontrolled, tight feeling in the muscles of your stomach, then you’ve probably had stomach cramps. They’re uncomfortable and sometimes hurt. Anyone can get them.

Most of the time, stomach cramps aren’t serious and don’t need to be diagnosed. If they happen often, are severe, or last for more than a day, this could be a sign of a more harmful medical problem, and you should see a doctor.

Here are some common causes of stomach cramps:

Food Poisoning

This happens when you eat food contaminated with certain germs. Stomach cramps can be one of the symptoms. In addition to the cramps, you may have:

It may take minutes, hours, or days for symptoms to appear.

Older adults, children younger than 5, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get food poisoning. Most people get better without seeing a doctor.

In the meantime, rest and avoid the food that might have made you sick.

If you’re throwing up or have diarrhea, experts say to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. See a doctor if your symptoms get more serious, including:

  • Blood in your poop
  • A high fever (temperature over 102 F)
  • Throwing up many times, which can lead to dehydration
  • Signs of dehydration (peeing less, dizziness, very dry mouth and throat)
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than a few days

Also call the doctor for diarrhea in a child under 6 months old or for an elderly adult with chronic medical problems or a weakened immune system.

Stomach Virus

You may hear your doctor call this viral gastroenteritis. People also call it stomach flu, but it's not caused by the flu virus.

There are different types of stomach viruses. Norovirus is the most common in the United States.

Since a stomach virus and food poisoning have similar symptoms, like cramps, it’s easy to confuse the two. You get a stomach virus through close contact with someone who has the virus, such as sharing food or kitchen utensils, like a fork or knife. You can also get the virus by eating or drinking unsafe food and water. Unlike food poisoning, the virus can spread easily to other people -- at least for the first few days you have it.

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Other symptoms include:

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Upset stomach and throwing up
  • Muscle aches or headache
  • Low-grade fever

There’s no medical treatment for a stomach virus. There are some things you can do at home to ward off dehydration and make you feel better.

Avoid solid foods. Sip plenty of liquids instead -- water, clear broths, or caffeine-free sports drinks.

Ease into eating. Start with things that are easy on your stomach, like:

  • Crackers
  • Toast
  • Jell-O
  • Bananas
  • Rice
  • Chicken

See how you feel. Stop eating if you feel sick again.

Get lots of rest, too. Dehydration and being sick may have made you weak and tired.

Most people with a stomach virus get better in a few days. Dehydration is a serious concern. You may have to go to the hospital for it. Call your doctor if you think you’ve become dehydrated.

Food Allergy

These happen when your body’s immune system defends itself against a food it has mistaken as harmful.

The most common food allergies are to proteins like:

If you’re allergic to certain foods, it’s best to avoid them. A dangerous allergic reaction called anaphylaxis can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, trouble swallowing, and shortness of breath. If not treated immediately, it can be fatal.

Food Intolerance

This is either when food irritates your digestive system or your body has trouble breaking it down. Lactose -- a sugar found in milk and other dairy foods -- is the most common food intolerance. Symptoms may only crop up when you eat a large amount of the problem food or eat it often.

Take an antacid to treat other symptoms of food intolerance like heartburn or stomachache.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 26, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Food Poisoning Symptoms,” “Foodborne Illnesses and Germs,” “Norovirus,” “Prevent the Spread of Norovirus.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Food Problems: Is it an Allergy or Intolerance,” “Anaphylaxis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu),” “Lactose Intolerance.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Viral Gastroenteritis (“Stomach Flu”).”

Kids Health: “Diarrhea.”

UpToDate: “Patient education: Acute diarrhea in adults (Beyond the Basics).”

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