More About Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a long-term (chronic) digestive disorder. It happens when stomach contents flow back up (reflux) into the food pipe (esophagus).

GERD is a more serious and long-lasting form of gastroesophageal reflux (GER).

GER is common in babies under 2 years old. Most babies spit up a few times a day during their first 3 months. GER does not cause any problems in babies. In most cases, babies outgrow this by the time they are 12 to 14 months old.

It is also common for children and teens ages 2 to 19 to have GER from time to time. This doesn’t always mean they have GERD.

When GER becomes GERD

Your baby, child, or teen may have GERD if:

  • Your baby’s symptoms prevent him or her from feeding. These symptoms may include vomiting, gagging, coughing, and trouble breathing.
  • Your baby has GER for more than 12 to 14 months
  • Your child or teen has GER more than 2 times a week, for a few months 

GERD is often caused by something that affects the LES, the lower esophageal sphincter. The LES is a muscle at the bottom of the food pipe (esophagus). The LES opens to let food into the stomach. It closes to keep food in the stomach. When the LES relaxes too often or for too long, stomach acid flows back into the esophagus. This causes vomiting or heartburn.

Everyone has reflux from time to time. If you have ever burped and had an acid taste in your mouth, you have had reflux. Sometimes the LES relaxes at the wrong times. Often your child will just have a bad taste in his or her mouth. Or your child may have a short, mild feeling of heartburn.

Babies are more likely to have a weak LES. This makes the LES relax when it should stay shut. As food or milk is digesting, the LES opens. It lets the stomach contents go back up to the esophagus. Sometimes the stomach contents go all the way up the esophagus. Then the baby or child vomits. In other cases, the stomach contents only go part of the way up the esophagus. This causes heartburn or breathing problems. In some cases there are no symptoms at all.

Some foods seem to affect the muscle tone of the LES. They let the LES stay open longer than normal. These foods include:

  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint
  • High-fat foods

Other foods cause the stomach to make more acid. These foods include:

  • Citrus foods
  • Tomatoes and tomato sauces

Other things that may lead to GERD include:

  • Being obese
  • Medicines, including some antihistamines, antidepressants, and pain medicines
  • Being around secondhand smoke

Heartburn, or acid indigestion, is the most common symptom of GERD. Heartburn is described as a burning chest pain. It begins behind the breastbone and moves up to the neck and throat. It can last as long as 2 hours. It is often worse after eating. Lying down or bending over after a meal can also lead to heartburn.

Children younger than age 12 will often have different GERD symptoms. They will have a dry cough, asthma symptoms, or trouble swallowing. They won’t have classic heartburn.

Each child may have different symptoms. Common symptoms of GERD include:

  • Burping or belching
  • Not eating
  • Having stomach pain
  • Being fussy around mealtimes
  • Vomiting often
  • Having hiccups
  • Gagging
  • Choking
  • Coughing often
  • Having coughing fits at night

Other symptoms may include:

  • Wheezing
  • Getting colds often
  • Getting ear infections often
  • Having a rattling in the chest
  • Having a sore throat in the morning
  • Having a sour taste in the mouth
  • Having bad breath
  • Loss or decay of tooth enamel

GERD symptoms may seem like other health problems. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.