Acid reflux occurs when stomach contents travel back up the esophagus.
When you eat, food travels from the mouth down the esophagus. The esophagus is a tube that connects the mouth with the stomach and is typically 10 inches in length.
There is an opening between the esophagus and the stomach that enables food to travel into the stomach. After food passes through, the opening closes.
But if the opening doesn’t close, contents in the stomach can travel back through the opening into the esophagus. This can be irritating and cause many symptoms.
People may also refer to acid reflux as:
- gastroesophageal reflux
- acid indigestion and regurgitation
Most people will experience acid reflux occasionally. Sometimes, they won’t even feel it when it happens. In some cases, acid reflux can be mild and may happen after eating larger meals.
In other cases, acid reflux can occur more frequently. If acid reflux occurs two or more times a week for a few consecutive weeks, this could be due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
GERD is a chronic condition that features acid reflux as a symptom. It occurs in up to 20% of the U.S. population.
GERD and acid reflux are not the same thing. GERD is a disease involving chronic symptoms of acid reflux.
Some people with acid reflux may experience no symptoms and not realize they are experiencing acid reflux. Other people may experience symptoms that could range from mild to severe.
Both acid reflux and GERD, the chronic form of acid reflux, can cause common symptoms like heartburn and regurgitation.
Heartburn can be a pain or burning feeling in the chest.
It may appear in the:
- middle of the chest
- area behind the breastbone
- lower part of the chest
This burning sensation may move and rise from the lower part of the breastbone up into the throat. This happens when stomach acid that travels back from the stomach into the throat touches the esophagus lining.
Stomach acid may travel back up into the throat after consuming a large meal or when lying down. In some people, like those with GERD, this can happen frequently.
The feeling of heartburn can last from a few minutes to a few hours.
The severity of heartburn can vary between people and may range from mild to severe. The types of foods and amount of food people eat can be factors that influence the severity of heartburn.
Acid reflux will commonly cause regurgitation. This involves contents of the stomach travelling back into the throat.
This may cause an unusual taste in the mouth. This taste may be:
The reason the taste may be sour or bitter is due to the presence of stomach acid in the mouth due to regurgitation.
In infants, regurgitation is typical and people may also refer to it as “spitting up.”
Sometimes, people may mistake regurgitated stomach contents from infants for vomit. But this is not the same thing. Other symptoms also accompany vomiting, like gagging or retching.
In infants, regurgitation can occur due to the size of the esophagus. The volume of this tube is small. Infants may also have large liquid meals and spend lots of time lying down. Both of these factors may also contribute to regurgitation.
Not everyone with acid reflux will experience heartburn or regurgitation. Some people may experience no symptoms at all, while other people may experience other symptoms.
Other possible symptoms that may occur due to acid reflux include:
- trouble swallowing
- pain swallowing and in the chest
- hoarse voice
- chronic cough
Adults with GERD, the chronic form of acid reflux, may also experience additional symptoms including:
- chronic sore throat
- bad breath
- inflammation in the gums
- excess amount of saliva
Infants with GERD may also experience additional symptoms, including:
- less weight gain
- episodes of chocking, gagging, and vomiting
- atypical chin and neck movements
- problems with swallowing
- wheezed breathing
- refusal to eat
- loss of appetite
- back arching
In some cases, symptoms of acid reflux could be an indication of something more serious. It is important to contact a healthcare professional to rule out other potential conditions.
Acid reflux can cause chest pain, and it can be difficult to distinguish if this is due to acid reflux or something serious like a heart attack.
If in doubt, it is important to have a healthcare professional immediately assess chest pain. Erring on the side of caution to check if pain is due to a heart attack, angina, or another condition is a good idea.
Numerous conditions can cause symptoms that may appear similar to GERD in infants.
Consult a healthcare professional right away if your infant:
- gains less weight than usual for their age
- weighs less than usual for their age
- cries more than usual
- breathes and swallows with difficulty
- displays signs of dehydration, like no wet diaper for 3 or more hours
- projectile vomits
- vomits large amounts, bile that’s green or yellow, blood, matter similar to coffee grounds
- bleeds from the rectum
- produces stools that contain blood
Contact a healthcare professional if you are an adult with acid reflux experiencing symptoms that may indicate a complication of GERD or another condition. These symptoms include:
- unexplained weight loss
- black, tarry, or bloody stools
- vomit with blood or that looks like coffee grounds
- persistent vomiting
- pain when swallowing
- lack of appetite
- chest pain
Not everyone with acid reflux will experience symptoms, and some people may have it without realising. Other people may experience symptoms that range from mild to severe. Common symptoms of acid reflux include heartburn and regurgitation. Other possible symptoms include chest pain, nausea and difficulty swallowing. Some symptoms of acid reflux, like chest pain, could also be due to a medical emergency like a heart attack. If in doubt, speak with a healthcare professional.