When to see a doctor: Don’t ignore these GI symptoms

Aug 02, 2022

Many people postpone seeing a doctor for worrisome or painful digestive symptoms. Our lives are busy and we may not want to take time off from work. Sometimes we are embarrassed because of the nature of the symptoms.

Many people postpone seeing a doctor for worrisome or painful digestive symptoms. Our lives are busy and we may not want to take time off from work. Sometimes we are embarrassed because of the nature of the symptoms. However, “putting off” a visit to the doctor may not be wise. Symptoms can be an indicator that something serious is happening. In this article, we offer guidance for deciding when to see a doctor for your GI symptoms.

Here’s our list of ten GI (gastrointestinal) symptoms you should NOT ignore. This list is not complete and should serve only as a guide for when to seek medical attention. It is best to be proactive where your health is concerned. If you are in doubt, its best to talk with your doctor.

Difficulty swallowing

Many people experience the occasional sensation of food getting stuck in the esophagus. If this happens repeatedly, even if it isn’t every day, it needs to be evaluated.

Abdominal pain

Not all abdominal pain indicates that something is terribly wrong. Sometimes the intestines cramp and cause generalized discomfort, typically after eating. However, certain types of abdominal pain can point to a specific problem and should not be ignored. Pain that is persistent, meaning it will not go away, should be evaluated immediately. In particular, pain in the right lower abdomen could be appendicitis. Pain in the left lower abdomen could be diverticulitis. Pain in the upper mid abdomen could be pancreatitis.

Abdominal distention

Not to be confused with bloating, abdominal distention is an enlarged abdominal girth that feels firm and is not variable based on eating. This requires medical attention.

Weight loss without trying

Many people want to lose weight and if lost on purpose, there are no worries. However, weight loss that occurs without trying, without a change in diet or physical activity, and that cannot be explained needs medical attention.

Vomiting blood

Blood in vomit can be bright red, dark red or even look like black coffee grounds. For any amount of blood in vomit, seek prompt medical attention.


Not all diarrhea is concerning. Viral infections are very common and are generally self-limited, meaning that the infection runs its course within days to 2 weeks. Any diarrhea lasting longer than that should warrant a trip to the doctor. Please note that if diarrhea is accompanied by rectal bleeding, weight loss, and/or severe abdominal pain, you should seek medical attention immediately rather than waiting for it to resolve on its own.


The medical definition of constipation is less than three bowel movements per week, or bowel movements that are small, hard, dry and painful or difficult to pass. Often the first recommendation is to increase the amount of fiber in your diet or to take fiber supplements. There are several types of laxatives that can also be tried. However, if constipation persists despite conservative measures, then medical attention is needed.

Black stools

Stool that is black and sticky like tar can indicate bleeding in the stomach or intestines. If black stool cannot be explained by reasons such as taking iron supplements or Pepto-Bismol or eating a lot of greens, then it needs to be checked out by a doctor.

Rectal bleeding

Rectal bleeding may appear as bright red, dark red or maroon in color. Blood may appear only on the toilet paper in small amounts or larger amounts in the toilet water. There are many causes of bleeding and some are serious. For any rectal bleeding, especially bleeding that is recurrent or persistent, seek prompt medical attention.


Jaundice is a condition that causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. It is caused by a backup of a waste product called bilirubin into the bloodstream, which then gets deposited throughout the body. Associated symptoms can include itchiness and dark brown urine. Jaundice indicates that the liver is not functioning properly or that there is a blockage somewhere in the liver or bile ducts. Jaundice requires medical attention.

The providers at Richmond Gastroenterology treat all types of digestive conditions. Contact us to schedule an appointment.

Disclaimer: This blog article is intended to be informative and is not medical advice.