Signs and Symptoms of Acid Reflux

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Many adults recognize the signs and symptoms of acid reflux (called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, if it becomes chronic). These include: burning pain in the chest, bad breath, and a persistent sour taste in the mouth. But acid reflux occurs in teens, children and even infants, too, and the condition can be more difficult to recognize in younger people. No matter your age, it’s important to treat acid reflux because it can seriously damage the esophagus and wear away the enamel of your teeth if left untreated. Learn how to tell if you experience acid reflux—and how to identify the symptoms of acid reflux in a baby.

What Causes Acid Reflux

Reflux occurs when stomach acids percolate up into the esophagus and sometimes into the mouth. These acids help your stomach digest foods and destroy pathogens. Normally, a structure located where the esophagus and stomach meet (the lower esophageal sphincter; think of it as a fire door between the esophagus and the stomach) remains tightly closed to keep acids inside the stomach. If the lower esophageal sphincter becomes weak, however, stomach acids can easily push the sphincter open and enter the esophagus—sometimes traveling all the way to the mouth.

In adults, teens and children, the lower esophageal sphincter can become weakened by taking certain medications, being overweight, smoking, or developing a hiatal hernia. In babies, the sphincter may be under-developed or weak at birth, allowing acid reflux to occur.

Symptoms of Acid Reflux in Adults and Children

Adults, teens and children tend to experience similar symptoms of acid reflux that include:

  • Bad breath not due to gum disease or poor oral hygiene

  • Burning pain in the chest or upper abdomen (heartburn)

  • Detectable reflux (feeling stomach contents coming up the esophagus, sometimes into the mouth) after eating

  • Excessive belching after meals

  • Nausea, with or without vomiting

  • Persistent sore throat or painful swallowing

  • Tooth erosion

The chest pain symptoms of acid reflux can feel very much like a heart attack. Always seek emergency medical attention if your chest pain or tightness is accompanied by:

Never feel embarrassed to call 911 for chest pain symptoms, even if they turn out to be caused by acid reflux.

Symptoms of Acid Reflux in Babies 

Infants can’t tell you if they have chest pain. Since they can’t verbalize their discomfort, they express it through behavioral signs of acid reflux that can include:

  • Arching the back, often accompanied by fussiness, during or after feeding

  • Crying for long periods of time (also called “colic”)

  • Coughing, gagging and apparent difficulty swallowing

  • Pneumonia

  • Refusing to feed, leading to poor growth and low weight gain

  • Spitting up much more than normal after feeding or routinely vomiting between feedings

  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing

If your baby cries for more than three hours per day without an apparent cause, or if she refuses feedings or appears dehydrated (based on not wetting a diaper every couple of hours), call your pediatrician right away. The issue could be acid reflux, which can easily be treated in infants with drops of antacid medication.

What to Do for Acid Reflux

Your doctor can advise you how to best treat reflux in infants, children and teens. Most adults can safely try taking an over-the-counter medication, such as antacids or acid-reducing pills, to see if their acid reflux symptoms go away. If not, or if your dentist says you have unusual tooth erosion, you should consult your healthcare provider to confirm the diagnosis and determine a treatment plan. Medications can effectively treat acid reflux to relieve the pain and other symptoms so you can enjoy eating again.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jul 24
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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