7 Digestive Symptoms Never to Ignore

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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  • Occasional heartburn or a common stomach bug usually aren’t cause for great concern. But digestive symptoms that don’t resolve on their own and have been hanging around longer than two weeks should be evaluated by a doctor. Persistent symptoms could point to a more serious condition that may need treatment. Learn which digestive problem symptoms you should never ignore and when it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor.

  • 1
    Frequent or worsening heartburn
    Senior Caucasian woman sitting on couch with chest pain or arrhythmia

    Usually heartburn isn’t worrisome on its own, especially when it happens after eating spicy, fatty or acidic foods; eating too much; or drinking too much caffeine or alcohol. Most of the time, over-the-counter antacids can manage these symptoms. But if you’re experiencing frequent heartburn (meaning it happens two or more times every week) or heartburn that gets progressively worse and doesn’t improve with antacids, call your doctor. Frequent or worsening heartburn is a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can have serious complications if it goes untreated.

  • 2
    Vomiting blood
    Woman in pain

    Vomiting blood may be frightening, and rightfully so—it could indicate a serious medical problem. The blood can look bright red or dark red, or it could look like coffee grounds, which means the blood has been in the stomach several hours. Unless there’s an obvious explanation, such as swallowing blood during a nosebleed, you need to see a doctor right away. Vomiting blood can indicate bleeding somewhere in the digestive tract or a health condition that requires emergency care and treatment, so don’t ignore this digestive symptom.

  • 3
    Bloody diarrhea
    Cropped image of unseen Caucasian woman on toilet holding toilet paper with pajama bottoms at feet

    Blood in the stool can look different depending on where the bleeding is happening. The blood can appear bright red, dark red, black or tarry, and it’s important for a doctor to determine where the blood is coming from. It could be the result of a stomach ulcer, Crohn’s disease, inflammation of the colon, an E.coli infection, or a side effect of a blood thinner. However, acute bloody diarrhea is a medical emergency because it could indicate a life-threatening condition. If you’re experiencing bloody diarrhea, call your doctor or go to the emergency room

  • 4
    Feeling full before eating much
    Middle aged Caucasian man at breakfast belching and holding chest with indigestion or GERD

    If you feel full after eating very little—also called early satiety—and there’s no explanation for it, consider calling your doctor. This feeling, which can sometimes include nausea after eating a normal meal, could mean there’s a more serious problem going on. An ulcer, obstruction or tumor could be the culprit, or the problem could be that you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Don’t ignore this symptom, because you may need treatment to address the underlying cause.

  • 5
    Severe abdominal pain
    Older African American man with stomach pain sitting on side of bed

    Occasional abdominal pain is common and usually not serious. However, if you experience acute abdominal pain so severe that you can’t move, you need to see a doctor right away. You might need emergency treatment, particularly if you’re also experiencing other digestive problem symptoms, such as bloody stools, persistent vomiting, or abdominal swelling. Severe abdominal pain could be caused by a number of medical emergencies—such as appendicitis, ectopic pregnancy, or even a heart attack—so never ignore this digestive symptom.

  • 6
    Distended abdomen
    Cropped photo of Caucasian doctor examining abdomen of female Caucasian patient

    A distended abdomen—meaning abdominal swelling—is more than likely not something to worry about. It can be caused simply by eating too much. But you shouldn’t ignore this potentially problematic digestive symptom. If the swelling doesn’t go away after you’ve had plenty of time to digest your meal, you may need to contact a doctor. If the swelling worsens or occurs with other unexplained symptoms, such as a fever, or if your abdomen is painful to the touch, it’s time to give your doctor a call.

  • 7
    Combination of many digestive symptoms
    Woman with stomach pain

    Several different digestive symptoms may occur together, and having a combination of many symptoms isn’t necessarily a reason to worry. However, if they persist, they could be digestive symptoms of ovarian cancer. Because symptoms of ovarian cancer coincide with common digestive issues, many women go undiagnosed and untreated until later stages of cancer. If you’re experiencing persistent gastrointestinal problems, particularly when they occur with unexplained weight gain or loss, talk with your doctor about your risk of ovarian cancer.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 17
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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