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Common digestive problems – and how to treat them - Eat well

Picture of a woman's stomach
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Chris Rout / Alamy Stock Photo

Digestive complaints such as constipation, diarrhoea, heartburn and bloating are very common and usually treatable with lifestyle measures and medicines you can buy without a prescription from a pharmacy.

Around 4 in 10 people have at least one digestive symptom at any one time, according to Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital in London.

The most common are:

"Most digestive problems are to do with lifestyle, the foods we've eaten, or stress. Which means that taking steps to change your lifestyle can help, and often prevent, many of these problems," says Dr Emmanuel.

"There's a wide choice of pharmacy medicines for heartburn, indigestion and similar problems that are very good for short-term relief of symptoms," he adds.

Medicines that can upset your tummy

Certain medicines that your doctor may have prescribed for you for other health conditions can lead to side effects that may upset your tummy and cause indigestion, diarrhoea or constipation.

Avoid aspirin and medicines used to treat arthritis, known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), if you have a stomach ulcer or you get indigestion.

Talk to your GP if you rely on these medicines and are also prone to indigestion or ulcers. Paracetamol is a useful alternative.

Certain tranquillisers, painkillers, iron tablets and cough medicines can cause constipation and some people get diarrhoea while taking antibiotics or blood pressure medicine.

Always tell your doctor if your prescribed medicines are upsetting your tummy.

When to see a doctor

Digestive symptoms are usually harmless and often settle down by themselves, but sometimes they do not go away and can be a signal of serious illness.

Dr Emmanuel advises anyone who has taken a pharmacy remedy for a digestive problem for 2 weeks with no improvement to see their GP.

He also highlights 5 symptoms, which mean you should see a doctor straight away.

These symptoms may be a warning of a serious digestive illness:

Page last reviewed: 29 August 2019
Next review due: 29 August 2022