Symptoms and Treatments for Heartburn and Acid Reflux in Children
We all belch. It’s the body’s way of ridding our digestive tract of gas that causes stomach pain.
Children are likely to laugh at the loud and uncontrolled croaking sound. It’s not funny, however, when a burp carries stomach acid up your esophagus, creating a burning sensation in the throat or chest. Now, you’re experiencing heartburn.
If your child’s complaints are limited to a sour taste in their mouth or the feeling of food stuck in their throat, then it’s likely acid reflux or acid regurgitation. Whereas heartburn is episodic and can usually be attributed to something you ate or drank, chronic or severe acid reflux is gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. Left untreated over time, it can lead to complications like throat cancer, doctors say.
What causes acid reflux?
Acid reflux happens because the muscle at the top of the stomach is weak or opens easily, allowing stomach acid into your throat.
Babies experience it because the muscle is still developing and because they live primarily on a liquid diet, says highly rated Dr. Anne Edwards, a pediatrician at Park Nicollet Clinic’s Brookdale location in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Infants also suck in their food, letting more air into the stomach, she says.
“Eighty percent of infants under 6 months have food come up easily out of their mouth,” says Dr. Casey Pruitt a pediatrician at highly rated Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “It’s not a problem as long as they are gaining weight.”
However, the condition needs medical attention if the spit-up is green or released with enough force that it projects. If that happens, your infant’s pediatrician should make sure there’s no blockage or another condition that will affect the child’s growth or health, Edwards says.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, acid reflux commonly occurs in children and adolescents between ages 2 and 19. Both Edwards and Pruitt say acid reflux typically resolves itself over time, as the stomach muscles get stronger. Infants who have had acid reflux are more susceptible to heartburn and GERD in adolescence. So are children who are overweight or regularly eat greasy or spicy foods.
Recognizing heartburn symptoms
Pruitt says adolescents with acid reflux or heartburn often complain about pain in the upper part of their stomach under the rib cage, or they may vomit without warning. Both can affect their appetite and sleeping habits, she says.
Edwards says the condition may mimic symptoms for other ailments, such as allergies or a sinus condition, so it’s important to have it diagnosed “All of that area is connected,” she says.
“If you’re constantly having partially digested food come up, it can cause irritation in the back part of the nose and inside the lungs. It can look like allergies.”
How to treat heartburn
While some doctors prescribe medication, many will first recommend your child avoid certain foods like chocolate, peppermint, greasy and spicy foods , which tend to trigger acid reflux symptoms, Pruitt says. Overweight children who have acid reflux will also benefit from losing weight, she says.
Pruitt says it’s harder to help teens overcome GERD if they drink a lot of caffeine-containing liquids, smoke or use other nicotine products, or drink alcohol — larger concerns that parents should tackle first. “You have to address the [prevailing] issue,” Pruitt says.
If medicine is necessary, doctors usually treat the condition with medicines that fully or partially blocks acid production, Pruitt says. Over-the-counter antacids like Prilosec (omeprazole), Pepcid (famotidine) and Prevacid (lansoprazole) are often recommended. However, Pruitt says the medications must be used properly because they can make your child susceptible to stomach viruses.
“Good bacteria in your stomach keeps bad bacteria in check” she says. “Some studies suggest if you take acid-blocking medicines, you run a higher risk for serious intestinal infections.”
Pruitt and Edwards say you shouldn’t ignore ongoing acid reflux. If the condition continues into adulthood, doctors may recommend surgery to prevent the stomach acid from affecting cells in the esophagus that may lead to cancer.