Acid reflux, sometimes used interchangeably with the term heartburn, is the hallmark symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). However, it’s not the only symptom.
Individuals suffering from GERD can also experience a variety of symptoms affecting the throat. A sore throat can result from acid reflux and may signify esophageal damage.
What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is the backward flow of stomach contents into the esophagus. Reflux is caused in part by a weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a ring-shaped band of muscle located at the bottom of the esophagus.
The LES is a valve that opens to allow food and drink down to your stomach for digestion and closes to keep matter from reversing its flow back up. A weak LES isn’t always able to close tightly, and stomach acids can creep back up your esophagus.
Effects on the Throat
Chronic acid reflux can contribute to throat soreness and can lead to the following:
- Esophagitis: irritation of the tissues lining the throat is due to the potent nature of stomach and esophageal acids.
- Clearing the throat: some people with GERD feel the need to clear their throats frequently, creating soreness and hoarseness.
- Dysphagia: this is difficulty swallowing when scar tissue forms in the esophageal lining from GERD. Narrowing of the esophagus can also lead to throat pain and dysphagia.
- Coughing: chronic coughing can cause sore throat and inflammation.
In addition to sore throat, chronic and severe acid reflux that goes unmanaged can lead to a rare, yet serious condition called “Barrett’s esophagus.” This occurs when the lining of the esophagus changes its composition to resemble the lining of the intestines.
Only about one percent of adults in the United States develop Barrett’s esophagus, according to estimates from the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC).
People with Barrett’s esophagus have a slightly increased risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus may include:
- heartburn (burning in the chest, sore throat)
- upper abdominal pain
- chest pain
Endoscopic procedures can help diagnose Barrett’s esophagus and other esophageal conditions that contribute to a sore throat from GERD. An endoscopy is performed by inserting a thin tube attached to a camera down your throat to view the lining.
Management of Sore Throat
To manage sore throat that accompanies acid reflux, it’s more effective to treat the underlying cause: GERD. Both over-the-counter and prescription medications work by eliminating, reducing, or neutralizing stomach acids. The neutralizing process reduces heartburn and sore throat. Other drugs strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter so acids can’t reflux.
GERD medicines include:
- antacids: calcium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, magnesium hydroxide, and aluminum hydroxide formulas
- H2 blockers: ranitidine, cimetidine, and famotidine
- proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): omeprazole, lansoprazole, and rabeprazole
Lifestyle modifications can also relieve your sore throat. Eat small and frequent meals, and avoid acidic, spicy, or overly fatty foods. These items are more likely to induce heartburn, sore throat, and other symptoms.
Experiment with different textures when eating to find items that soothe your throat. People who have trouble swallowing may find eating sticky foods or thin liquids more difficult and painful than soft foods or solids cut into small pieces.
Also, avoid beverages that will promote heartburn and irritate your esophageal lining, such as:
- caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, soft drinks, hot chocolate)
- alcoholic beverages
- citrus and tomato juices
- carbonated sodas or water
Try not to lie down within a few hours of eating to prevent GERD symptoms. Speak to your healthcare provider before using herbal supplements or other medications to soothe a sore throat. Although the pain is uncomfortable, treating your symptoms safely is crucial.