When to See a Doctor About Common Digestive Disorders

Upset stomach

Everyone has a rumbling stomach now and then. But some digestive problems can be more serious — and cause for concern.

What is important to know is that you are not alone. Digestive disorders affect approximately one out of every five Americans. Digestive symptoms should not be ignored. Talk with your doctor if you are experiencing discomfort. Here are some common conditions affecting the digestive system.

Chronic Constipation

This condition occurs when you have fewer than three bowel movements in one week or stools that are hard, dry, and difficult to pass. When this problem lasts three weeks or more, it is called chronic (or long-lasting) constipation.

When should you see a doctor about chronic constipation?

Call your primary care doctor if you are constipated for longer than three weeks. Over-the-counter medicines or fiber supplements may help. Some patients may require prescription medications.


Commonly called the stomach flu, gastroenteritis is an infection that causes inflammation in the intestines. Bacteria or parasites can cause gastroenteritis, but viruses are the most common cause. Sometimes the disease spreads through contaminated food. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and headache. Most people get better on their own. If you have gastroenteritis, drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration.

When should you see a doctor for gastroenteritis?

Call your primary care doctor if symptoms continue to get worse, if your symptoms are prolonged, if you have difficulty staying hydrated or if you experience rectal bleeding.

Listen to the Podcast

Dr. John Dowd, of Emerson's Concord Gastroenterology Associates discusses bellyaches, what they are, and when you should seek help from a doctor.


Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The disease occurs when stomach acid, food, or liquid flows from the stomach backward up into the esophagus. (The esophagus is the tube connecting the stomach and mouth.) A good history is usually all that is needed to diagnose GERD, but endoscopy or other tests are sometimes necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Untreated GERD can cause serious problems, such as bleeding or difficulty swallowing and can even increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

Lifestyle changes, such as eating smaller meals and not eating for two hours before bedtime, can help relieve symptoms. Over-the-counter heartburn medications can also be effective.

When should you see a doctor about GERD?

If symptoms persist after two weeks of over-the-counter medication, contact your primary care provider. Prescription medications or surgery may be warranted for serious GERD.

Listen to the Podcast

Dr. John Dowd, of Emerson's Concord Gastroenterology Associates discusses heartburn, what it is, and when you should seek help from a doctor.

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Hemorrhoids, or swollen veins in the rectum, are very common. They affect 75 percent of people older than 45. Hemorrhoids can bleed or be painful, itchy, or tender. A telltale symptom is blood on the toilet paper or in the toilet after you have a bowel movement. Hemorrhoids occur from straining to have a bowel movement, sitting on the toilet too long, or heavy lifting.

When should you see a doctor about a hemorrhoid?

See your primary care doctor if you think you may have a hemorrhoid. You should never ignore rectal bleeding, even if you think it is from a hemorrhoid. The symptoms may be a sign of something more serious, such as cancer. Talk with your doctor before using hemorrhoid medication.

Peptic Ulcer Disease

A peptic ulcer is an open sore in the stomach caused by acid. People used to think stress caused ulcers, but that is not true. Most often, ulcers are due to an infection with a bacteria called H. pylori or taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen. If you have an ulcer, your doctor may do a test to check for an H. pylori infection. Antibiotics can help clear up the infection. Pain in the upper abdomen is a common ulcer symptom, although some people with ulcers do not feel any pain. A prescription medication known as a proton pump inhibitor is usually prescribed to treat ulcers.

When should you see a doctor about an ulcer?

You should contact your primary care doctor if you think you may have an ulcer. Call 911 if you experience ulcer symptoms that are consistent with internal bleeding such as bloody or dark stool, difficulty breathing, unusually pale skin color, fainting or dizziness, blood in your vomit, and severe stomach pain.

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Thank you for reading our article on common digestive disorders. As a community hospital we rely on the support of our community to continue to provide our local health care needs. We welcome your help in fostering a healthy community. If this content has helped you in an way, please consider making an online gift to Emerson Hospital so that we can continue to support our community’s health needs.

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