Your family has just finished dinner when someone at the table starts feeling a burning sensation in their chest. It is not your spouse or Aunt Mabel, but your child. The burning sensation, or
heartburn, is one symptom of
gastroesophageal reflux disease
GERD happens when acid and food flow back up from the stomach and into the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach), potentially damaging the esophagus. GERD can cause chronic problems, such as regurgitation or respiratory problems.
Although symptoms are similar, this is not to be confused with gastroesophageal reflux (GER). GER is common in infants and children. It eventually goes away on its own without treatment.
According to a study in
The American Journal of Gastroenterology
children with GERD
may be at risk for having this condition as an adult, as well. Fortunately, researchers say that detecting and treating GERD during childhood may result in better outcomes later in life.
GERD is caused by the weakening of a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When you swallow, it contracts to prevent stomach contents from flowing back up, or regurgitating, into the esophagus. Certain foods, medications, and conditions can relax the LES, allowing acid to regurgitate. It may also occur as a result of impaired or absent muscle tone.
If your child has GERD, the doctor may recommend avoiding: Spicy, acidic, or tomato-based foodsFatty or fried foodsCitrus products, such as orange juiceChocolateCaffeinated
drinks, such as soda, coffee, tea, or hot chocolate
Teenagers should also avoid
and drinking alcohol, and those with GERD have an added incentive not to. These activities can worsen their symptoms.
Symptoms of GERD in children include: Severe abdominal discomfortLower chest painHeartburnSensation of food or liquid regurgitating into the throat or mouthSensation of food stuck down in the throatDifficulty or pain while swallowingVomitingPoor weight gain or weight loss
Respiratory problems, such as wheezing, coughing, or
GERD can cause other health complications for your child that occur over a long period of time. These include: Esophagitis—an inflammation of the esophagusStricture—a narrowing of the esophagus that may make swallowing difficult
To help your child communicate how they are feeling and to better understand the symptoms, ask your child the following questions:
- Where does your tummy hurt? (Ask your child to point to where it hurts.)
- Does it hurt in your chest?
- Does it hurt when you eat or drink?
- Do you get a yucky or sour taste in your mouth? Does it taste like throw-up?
- Does food sometimes get stuck in your throat?
GERD can usually be diagnosed based on your child’s symptoms and a physical exam. Additional diagnostic tests are often not required. Once the diagnosis is made, it can be treated through lifestyle changes, medications, and rarely, surgery.
The first step is changing your child’s diet. This may relieve mild symptoms. Avoiding GERD “trigger” foods may be the first step. The doctor may also suggest feeding your child smaller meals and avoiding food 2-3 hours before bedtime. The doctor may also suggest that you elevate the head of your child's bed 6-8 inches (15-20 centimeters) or have your child sleep on the left side.
Medications prescribed to treat GERD in children decrease the amount of acid produced in the stomach. These include H2-blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).
Surgery, such as a procedure called
fundoplication, is rarely used to treat children with GERD. Rather, it is reserved for severe cases or when medications and lifestyle changes do not relieve symptoms.
GERD can be an uncomfortable condition for both you and your child. But, there is help available. Recognizing and relieving symptoms now may benefit your child's health down the line.
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Last reviewed June 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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