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reviewed 9/12/2018

When stomach pain is an emergency: True or false?

Most people get stomach pain from time to time. But when is it actually an emergency? And when is it safe to ride it out? Test your knowledge about bellyaches with this quick quiz.

True or false: Very bad stomach pain is always serious.

False. Although you should always seek medical care for severe stomach pain, it can be due to gas or cramps caused by viral gastroenteritis—what's sometimes called the stomach flu. On the other hand, life-threatening conditions, such as colon cancer or early appendicitis, may only cause mild pain.

True or false: Pain you feel in most of your belly is more likely to be an emergency than pain that's in just one spot.

False. Generalized pain—meaning you feel it in more than half your belly—is more likely a sign of indigestion, gas or a stomach virus. But localized pain—which you feel in only one area—is more commonly a sign of a problem in an organ, such as your appendix or gallbladder.

True or false: Appendicitis is always an emergency.

True. If not treated, appendicitis can cause a ruptured appendix, which is life-threatening. A common symptom is sudden abdominal pain. It usually begins near the belly button and then moves lower and to the right. It gets worse in a matter of hours and also worsens when you're moving around or taking deep breaths.

True or false: Cramplike pain is usually not serious.

True. This type of pain is likely due to gas or bloating. And it's often followed by diarrhea. Cramping is more worrisome if it lasts more than 24 hours or occurs with a fever. In that case, call your doctor or get medical care right away.

True or false: Upper abdominal pain can be a sign of a heart attack.

True. While chest pain and arm pain are well-known heart attack signs, pain in the upper abdomen, above the belly button, can signal a heart attack too. So can nausea and vomiting. Don't write off these symptoms, especially if you're at risk for a heart attack.

One common cause of stomach discomfort is acid reflux, also called heartburn. But it's often preventable, if you know what triggers it. This infographic can help.

Heartburn triggers

Sources: American College of Emergency Physicians; National Institutes of Health

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