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Symptoms and Causes of GERD

Symptoms of acid reflux and GERD

Acid reflux symptoms and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms are similar. When they happen once in a while, it’s acid reflux. When they happen often, it’s GERD. The definition of GERD is when stomach acid flows into your esophagus repeatedly.

If you have GERD, you may notice:

  • Heartburn, a burning feeling in the chest that often starts after you eat or when you lie down. The burning can spread to the neck, throat or stomach.
  • Regurgitation, where stomach acid and other stomach contents move into the throat or mouth. It usually happens suddenly – and sometimes, you’ll notice a sour or bitter taste. You may burp when you regurgitate.
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia), which can feel like food is stuck in your throat or chest so it can be uncomfortable or painful to swallow. Dysphagia can make it hard to swallow pills as well.
  • Dry cough that lasts a long time and may be worse at night — it might wake you up.
  • Sore throat, since stomach acid can irritate your throat.
  • Hoarseness or laryngitis (losing your voice). Your throat might feel scratchy or like it has a lump in it. It could be hard to talk or swallow.
  • Worsening asthma or asthma attacks when you’re lying down.
  • Illnesses like pneumonia or bronchitis if you breathe contents from your stomach into your lungs.
  • Tooth problems, like cavities and enamel erosion, caused by stomach acid.
  • Chest pain that can feel like a heart attack. It could range from a dull ache to stabbing pain. Chest pain from GERD is often worse after you eat or when you’re lying down. But remember: It’s important to call 911 and get medical care immediately if you think you could be having a heart attack.

If you have these symptoms, it’s important to see your health care provider so you can find out if you actually have GERD and start a treatment plan.

In certain cases, your primary care provider might want you to see a gastroenterologist (a digestive system doctor). That might be the case if:

  • Your symptoms are severe, frequent or not responding to treatment.
  • Your symptoms are atypical and you need diagnostic tests to find out what’s causing your symptoms.
  • You need special tests like an endoscopy or pH monitoring.
  • You need ongoing care and treatment for complications of GERD, such as Barrett’s esophagus or esophageal strictures.

Learn more about testing and diagnosis for GERD.

What increases your risk of GERD and acid reflux?

Several things can cause your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) valve (where your esophagus meets your stomach) to be weak or not work properly. Causes of and risk factors for GERD include:

  • Obesity: When you have a lot of body weight in your abdomen, it can put pressure on your stomach and force acid into the esophagus.
  • Hiatal hernia: Normally, the diaphragm helps to reinforce the LES. However, with a hiatal hernia, part of your stomach can push through the diaphragm. When this happens, it cannot help to reinforce the LES and acid can escape into the esophagus more easily. 
  • Pregnancy: The hormonal changes you have when you’re pregnant and the pressure of your growing uterus can make acid reflux more likely.
  • Smoking: Smoking makes your LES weaker and makes you produce less saliva. Saliva helps neutralize stomach acid.
  • Some foods and drinks: Many people find that spicy or fatty foods, citrus, tomatoes, chocolate, mint and alcohol can trigger acid reflux.
  • Large meals and lying down after eating: When you overeat or you lie down within a few hours of eating, it’s more likely that acid will flow into your esophagus.
  • Wearing tight clothing: Snug belts or clothes that squeeze your abdomen can make reflux more likely.
  • Some medications: Medications that relax the LES can cause symptoms. They include calcium channel blockers and beta blockers (high blood pressure medicines), nitrates (angina medicine), antihistamines (allergy medicines) and some asthma medications.
  • Slow stomach emptying: When food is in your stomach for longer than normal, you could have acid reflux symptoms or GERD. A condition called gastroparesis could be the cause.