What is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a more serious form of gastroesophageal reflux (GER), which is common. GER occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens spontaneously, for varying periods of time, or does not close properly and stomach contents rise up into the esophagus. GER is also called acid reflux or acid regurgitation, because digestive juices—called acids—rise up with the food. The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. The LES is a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that acts like a valve between the esophagus and stomach.
When acid reflux occurs, food or fluid can be tasted in the back of the mouth. When refluxed stomach acid touches the lining of the esophagus it may cause a burning sensation in the chest or throat called heartburn or acid indigestion. Occasional GER is common and does not necessarily mean one has GERD. Persistent reflux that occurs more than twice a week is considered GERD, and it can eventually lead to more serious health problems. People of all ages can have GERD.
What are the symptoms of GERD?
The main symptom of GERD in adults is frequent heartburn, also called acid indigestion—burning-type pain in the lower part of the mid-chest, behind the breast bone, and in the mid-abdomen. Most children under 12 years with GERD, and some adults, have GERD without heartburn. Instead, they may experience a dry cough, asthma symptoms, or trouble swallowing.
What causes GERD?
The reason some people develop GERD is still unclear. However, research shows that in people with GERD, the LES relaxes while the rest of the esophagus is working. Anatomical abnormalities such as a hiatal hernia may also contribute to GERD. A hiatal hernia occurs when the upper part of the stomach and the LES move above the diaphragm, the muscle wall that separates the stomach from the chest. Normally, the diaphragm helps the LES keep acid from rising up into the esophagus. When a hiatal hernia is present, acid reflux can occur more easily. A hiatal hernia can occur in people of any age and is most often a normal finding in otherwise healthy people over age 50. Most of the time, a hiatal hernia produces no symptoms.
Other factors that may contribute to GERD include
Common foods that can worsen reflux symptoms include
- citrus fruits
- drinks with caffeine or alcohol
- fatty and fried foods
- garlic and onions
- mint flavorings
- spicy foods
- tomato-based foods, like spaghetti sauce, salsa, chili, and pizza
What is GERD in children?
Distinguishing between normal, physiologic reflux and GERD in children is important. Most infants with GER are happy and healthy even if they frequently spit up or vomit, and babies usually outgrow GER by their first birthday. Reflux that continues past 1 year of age may be GERD. Studies show GERD is common and may be overlooked in infants and children. For example, GERD can present as repeated regurgitation, nausea, heartburn, coughing, laryngitis, or respiratory problems like wheezing, asthma, or pneumonia. Infants and young children may demonstrate irritability or arching of the back, often during or immediately after feedings. Infants with GERD may refuse to feed and experience poor growth.
Talk with your child’s health care provider if reflux-related symptoms occur regularly and cause your child discomfort. Your health care provider may recommend simple strategies for avoiding reflux, such as burping the infant several times during feeding or keeping the infant in an upright position for 30 minutes after feeding. If your child is older, your health care provider may recommend that your child eat small, frequent meals and avoid the following foods:
- sodas that contain caffeine
- spicy foods
- acidic foods like oranges, tomatoes, and pizza
- fried and fatty foods
Avoiding food 2 to 3 hours before bed may also help. Your health care provider may recommend raising the head of your child’s bed with wood blocks secured under the bedposts. Just using extra pillows will not help. If these changes do not work, your health care provider may prescribe medicine for your child. In rare cases, a child may need surgery
How is GERD treated?
See your health care provider if you have had symptoms of GERD and have been using antacids or other over-the-counter reflux medications for more than 2 weeks. Your health care provider may refer you to a gastroenterologist, a doctor who treats diseases of the stomach and intestines. Depending on the severity of your GERD, treatment may involve one or more of the following lifestyle changes, medications, or surgery.
- If you smoke, stop.
- Avoid foods and beverages that worsen symptoms.
- Lose weight if needed.
- Eat small, frequent meals.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes.
- Avoid lying down for 3 hours after a meal.
- Raise the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches by securing wood blocks under the bedposts. Just using extra pillows will not help