Acid reflux is a fairly common condition that occurs when stomach acids and other stomach contents back up into the esophagus through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is a muscular ring located in the digestive tract where the esophagus meets the stomach. The LES opens to allow food into the stomach when you swallow, and then closes to prevent stomach contents from rising up into the esophagus. When the LES is weak or damaged it may not close properly, allowing harmful stomach contents to back up into the esophagus, causing acid reflux symptoms.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), acid reflux affects more than 20 percent of Americans.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Reflux symptoms are more common:
- when lying down or bending over
- after a heavy meal
- after a fatty or spicy meal
Acid reflux can occur at any time of day. However, most people tend to experience symptoms at night. This is because lying down makes it easier for acid to move up into the chest.
See your doctor for testing if you:
- find yourself taking antacids on a daily basis
- experience acid reflux more than twice a week
- have symptoms that significantly affect your quality of life
Frequent acid reflux may indicate gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a chronic, more severe form of acid reflux that can lead to serious health complications if it goes untreated.
When stomach contents back up into your esophagus, it can cause a variety of symptoms. Symptoms depend on what organs are affected by the stomach acid. Not everyone with acid reflux will have the same symptoms.
Heartburn is also known as acid indigestion. It’s the most common symptom of acid reflux. The painful, burning sensation is caused by rising stomach acid. It moves from your stomach, where the lining is resistant to its corrosive effects, up into your esophagus, the lining of which is not similarly protected. It can climb all the way from the bottom of the esophagus all the way up into the throat.
Heartburn can range from uncomfortable to painful. However, the severity of the burning sensation doesn’t necessarily indicate lasting/permanent injury to the esophagus.
Heartburn often worsens when you lie down or bend over. These positions make it easier for acid to flow up through a poorly functioning lower esophageal sphincter and into the chest.
If the backwash of stomach acid rises all the way to the back of your throat or your mouth, it can cause a sour or bitter taste in your mouth. You may also have a burning sensation in your throat and mouth.
Some people experience regurgitation. This is the feeling of liquid, food, or bile moving the wrong way in your throat (up rather than down). In some cases, people may even vomit. However, vomiting is rare in adults.
Infants and children with gastroesophageal reflux (GER) may experience repeated regurgitation. This can be harmless and perfectly natural in infants under 18 months old. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), more than half of all infants experience reflux in the first three months of life.
Dyspepsia is a burning feeling and discomfort in the upper middle part of your stomach. It’s also known as indigestion. Pain can be intermittent.
Some people with dyspepsia may:
- feel bloated
- have heartburn
- feel uncomfortably full
- be nauseated
- have an upset stomach
- vomit or burp a lot
These symptoms should be taken seriously. They can potentially signify the presence of another disorder called peptic ulcers disease. Such ulcers cause their own chronic symptoms, can bleed on occasion, and in a few cases, if left untreated, they can burrow all the way through the stomach leading to a medical emergency (perforation).
Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia)
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, at least 7 to 10 percent of adults over age 50 have dysphagia. This is a condition in which swallowing is difficult or painful. There are many potential causes of dysphagia. In addition to GERD, it can be caused by:
- multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
Acid reflux can irritate the throat. Common symptoms include:
- sore throat
- hoarse voice
- the sensation of a lump in your throat
According to the NYU Langone Medical Center, acid reflux is present in as many as half of all patients with voice problems.
Some adults and most children under age 12 with GERD don’t experience heartburn, the most common symptom of acid reflux. Instead, they experience other reflux symptoms.
Dry cough is a common symptom of reflux in children. Adults may also experience the sensation of having a lump in the throat. They may feel like they need to repeatedly cough or clear their throat.
Reflux often causes asthma symptoms in children. Symptoms such as wheezing are caused by stomach acid irritating the airways. Some adults with GERD also experience asthma.
According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), GERD accounts for up to 60 percent of patient visits to the emergency room for noncardiac chest pain. However, just because most of the time such symptoms don’t turn out to be caused by a heart attack, the symptoms are often similar enough to justify taking them seriously enough to get checked out for a more serious condition like heart attack in a very timely fashion.
Seek emergency medical treatment immediately if you experience:
- heartburn that seems different or worse than normal
- severe chest pain
- a squeezing, tightening, or crushing sensation in your chest
Emergency care is especially important if pain occurs during physical activity or is accompanied by:
- shortness of breath
- pain radiating through your left arm, shoulder, back, neck, or jaw
Prompt treatment may save your life.
In addition to heart attack, GERD symptoms can also signal other serious medical problems. Call 911 if your stools are maroon or tar-black, or you vomit material that is black (like coffee grounds) or bloody. These could be signs you are bleeding into your stomach (often due to the aforementioned peptic ulcer disease).