What is acid reflux?
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. This allows harmful stomach contents to back up into the esophagus, causing acid reflux symptoms.
It is estimated that acid reflux affects up to 20 percent of Americans.
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.
Common acid reflux symptoms
When stomach contents repeatedly 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.
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.
Heartburn is the most common symptom of acid reflux. Your stomach is protected from the corrosive effects of stomach acid. If your lower esophageal sphincter doesn’t prevent your stomach acid from leaking out of your stomach and into your esophagus, you will experience a painful burning sensation in your chest.
Heartburn can range from uncomfortable to painful. However, the severity of the burning sensation doesn’t necessarily indicate lasting or permanent injury to the esophagus.
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 up your throat, 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, about 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 known as indigestion. Heartburn can be a symptom of dyspepsia. 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 ulcer disease. Such ulcers cause their own chronic symptoms and can bleed on occasion. In a few cases, if left untreated, they can burrow all the way through the stomach leading to a medical emergency called perforation.
Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, affects at least 1 in 25 adults every year. 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
Other acid reflux symptoms
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 and adults. 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 exacerbates asthma symptoms in children and adults. Symptoms such as wheezing are worsened by stomach acid irritating the airways.
Emergency acid reflux symptoms
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, GERD accounts for 22 to 66 percent of visits to the emergency room for noncardiac chest pain. However, the symptoms are often similar enough to warrant taking them seriously and getting checked out for a more serious condition like a heart attack.
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
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 and resembles coffee grounds or bloody. These could be signs you are bleeding into your stomach, often due to peptic ulcer disease.