Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition that causes the contents of your stomach to wash back up into your esophagus, throat, and mouth.
GERD is chronic acid reflux with symptoms that occur more than twice a week or that last for weeks or months.
Let’s look at GERD symptoms that adults, babies, and children experience, and what you can do about it.
I’ve got a burning pain in my chest
The most common symptom of GERD is a burning feeling in the middle of your chest or at the top of your stomach. Chest pain from GERD, also called heartburn, can be so intense that people sometimes wonder if they’re having a heart attack.
But unlike the pain from a heart attack, GERD chest pain usually feels like it’s just under your skin, and it may seem to radiate from your stomach up to your throat instead of down your left arm. Find out the other differences between GERD and heartburn.
Some people find they can get relief from heartburn by:
- loosening belts and waistbands
- chewing over-the-counter antacids
- sitting up straight to reduce pressure on the lower end of the esophagus
- trying natural remedies such as apple cider vinegar, licorice, or ginger
I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth
You could also have a bitter or sour taste in your mouth. That’s because food or stomach acid may have come up your esophagus and into the back of your throat.
It’s also possible you have laryngopharyngeal reflux instead of, or at the same time as, GERD. In this case, symptoms involve your throat, larynx and voice, and nasal passages.
It’s worse when I lie flat
It may be hard to swallow and you may cough or wheeze after eating, especially at night or when you lie down. Some people with GERD also feel nauseated.
I don’t have heartburn, but my dentist noticed a problem with my teeth
Not everyone with GERD experiences digestive symptoms. For some people, the first sign might be damage to your tooth enamel. If stomach acid comes back up into your mouth often enough, it can wear away the surface of your teeth.
If your dentist says your enamel is eroding, there are things you can do to keep it from getting worse.
These steps may help protect your teeth from reflux:
- chewing over-the-counter antacids to neutralize acid in your saliva
- rinsing out your mouth with water and baking soda after you have acid reflux
- using a fluoride rinse to “remineralize” any scratches on your teeth
- switching to a nonabrasive toothpaste
- chewing gum with xylitol to increase the flow of your saliva
- wearing a dental guard at night
My baby spits up a lot
According to doctors at the Mayo Clinic, healthy babies could have normal reflux several times daily, and most outgrow it by the time they’re 18 months old. A change in how much, how often, or how forcefully your baby spits up could indicate a problem, especially when they’re older than 24 months.
My baby often coughs and gags while eating
When the contents of the stomach comes back up, your baby could cough, choke, or gag. If the reflux goes into the windpipe, it could even lead to difficulty breathing or repeated lung infections.
My baby seems really uncomfortable after eating
Babies with GERD may also show signs of discomfort while they’re eating or right afterward. They might arch their backs. They might have colic — periods of crying that last longer than three hours a day.
My baby has trouble staying asleep
When babies lie flat, the backflow of fluids can be uncomfortable. They may wake up in distress throughout the night. There are steps you can take to alleviate these sleep disturbances, such as raising the head of their crib and changing their schedule.
My baby is refusing food, and it’s leading to weight concerns
When eating is uncomfortable, babies may turn away food and milk. You or your doctor might notice that your baby isn’t gaining weight at the right pace or is even losing weight.
There are several things you can do to help your baby with these symptoms.
Treatment tips for GERD in babies:
- feeding smaller amounts more often
- switching formula brands or types
- eliminating some animal products, such as beef, eggs, and dairy, from your own diet if you breastfeed
- changing the size of the nipple opening on the bottle
- burping your baby more often
- keeping your baby upright for at least a half hour after eating
If these strategies don’t help, ask your doctor about trying an approved acid-reducing medicine for a short period.
GERD symptoms for older kids and teens are just like those in babies and adults. Children may have abdominal pain or discomfort after eating. It may be hard for them to swallow, and they may feel nauseated or even vomit after they eat.
Some children with GERD may belch a lot or sound hoarse. Older children and teenagers may also have heartburn or trouble breathing after they eat. If children start associating food with discomfort, they may resist eating.
The American College of Gastroenterology recommends that you see a doctor if you use over-the-counter medications to help with GERD symptoms more than twice a week.
You should also go see your doctor if you begin vomiting larger amounts, especially if you’re throwing up liquid that’s green, yellow, or bloody, or that has small black specks in it that look like coffee grounds.
Your doctor might prescribe:
- H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors to lower the amount of acid in your stomach
- prokinetics to help your stomach empty more quickly after you eat
If those methods don’t work, surgery may be an option. Treatments for children with GERD symptoms are similar.
To keep GERD symptoms to a minimum, you can make some simple changes. You may want to try:
- eating smaller meals
- limiting citrus, caffeine, chocolate, and high-fat foods
- adding foods to improve digestion
- drinking water instead of carbonated drinks and alcohol
- avoiding late-night meals and tight clothing
- keeping upright for 2 hours after eating
- raising the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches using risers, blocks, or wedges
The acid produced by your stomach is strong. If your esophagus is exposed to it too much, you could develop esophagitis, an irritation of the lining of your esophagus.
You could also get reflux laryngitis, a voice disorder that makes you hoarse and leaves you feeling that you have a lump in your throat.
Abnormal cells could grow in your esophagus, a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which can, in rare cases, lead to cancer.
And your esophagus could be scarred, forming esophageal strictures that limit your ability to eat and drink the way you used to.
At the bottom of the esophagus, a muscular ring called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens to let food into your stomach. If you have GERD, your LES doesn’t close all the way after the food passes through it. The muscle stays loose, which means food and liquid can flow back into your throat.
A number of risk factors can increase your chances of getting GERD. If you’re overweight or pregnant, or if you have a hiatal hernia, the extra pressure on your stomach area could cause the LES not to work correctly. Certain medications can also cause acid reflux.
Studies have shown that smoking can lead to GERD and stopping smoking can greatly reduce reflux.
The symptoms of GERD can be uncomfortable for those of all ages. If left unchecked, they can even lead to long-term damage to parts of your digestive system. The good news is that you may be able to manage the symptoms by changing some basic habits.
If these changes don’t fully relieve your or your child’s symptoms, your doctor may be able to prescribe medication to reduce acid reflux or surgically repair the ring of muscle that’s allowing the backflow into your esophagus.