Everybody burps, but if yours are frequent or super smelly, does it mean you have a problem?
“Burping is a very benign symptom,” assures Rebecca Tsang, MD, MPH, a gastroenterologist at NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois.
Yes, it can be bothersome–and potentially embarrassing–at times. But Dr. Tsang says burping is usually not a sign of something serious unless it’s accompanied by other GI symptoms.
Here’s a translation of what your burps and belches might be trying to tell you.
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You just finished a huge meal
Groaningly large meals are a recipe for gastrointestinal distress, including excessive burping.
A normal adult can comfortably consume 1 to 1.5 liters of food and liquid in a meal. If you go for extra helpings, your stomach will expand to accommodate the feast–but only so far. For most people, maximum capacity tops out at 3 or 4 liters. That’s around a gallon of food!
“When you eat larger meals, you’re increasing the pressure in your stomach,” explains Dr. Tsang. “The gas in your stomach has nowhere to go but up into the esophagus and then out of your mouth.”
It’s normal to ingest some air when you’re eating. But if you’re eating too quickly–or eating and gabbing at the same time–you could be swallowing more air than usual. And that can make you burp a lot, explains Michelle Honda, PhD, a holistic doctor in private practice in Ontario and author of the book Reverse Gut Diseases Naturally. Eating more slowly can reduce those noisy interruptions, she says.
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You’re sucking in excess air
Even if you eat slowly and mindfully, you could be ingesting excess air–and burping a lot–for other reasons. The medical term for this type of bloating and belching is aerophagia. Lots of things can cause it, like sucking on hard candy, chewing gum, smoking, or even hyperventilating due to anxiety. Sleep apnea sufferers who wear a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine as they snooze to prevent airway collapse may also experience aerophagia as a side effect.
“A lot of musicians come to see me for burping,” adds Dr. Tsang. When they play their woodwind or brass instruments, “they end up swallowing a lot of air too, because they’re taking a lot of breaths.”
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You're eating your veggies
Foods–even healthy ones–produce gas during digestion. Certain sugars, starches, and fibrous foods can make you burp a lot.
Your burps can be particularly foul if you’re eating foods with sulfur-containing compounds, like onions, broccoli, and other cruciferous vegetables. Other likely offenders include eggs, meat, fish, and garlic.
“It gives your burps that rotten egg smell,” Honda explains. The stench itself is harmless, she adds, although excessive burping could signal an underlying digestive problem. For example, people who are lactose intolerant have trouble digesting lactose, a type of sugar in milk and other dairy products. Undigested lactose moves straight to the colon in these folks, where bacteria go to town, producing gasses that cause burps, farts, and bloating.
If you have a serious seltzer habit–or appreciate a couple of beers–you might find yourself belching simply because of those delightfully fizzy beverages. They contain carbon dioxide, a colorless gas that’s safe to ingest but can bring about constant burping, Honda says.
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You could have IBS
If you’re burping alongside other GI symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, and constipation or diarrhea (or both), it could be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
This chronic disorder, which affects women more often than men, is commonly associated with the need to pass frequent gas. However, a small study published online in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility finds repetitive belching is a frequent symptom too. Talk to your doctor if you have ongoing symptoms. He or she may be able to suggest diet changes, medications, or other therapies that can help.
When burping goes hand-in-hand with heartburn, acid reflux may to be blame. Reflux occurs when stomach contents back up into the esophagus. (Chronic acid reflux is known as GERD.) Other common symptoms include difficulty swallowing, upper abdominal or chest pain, hoarseness, and feeling like you have a lump in your throat.
Honda says she sees patients with heartburn who gulp excessive amounts of coffee, sometimes 10 or 12 cups a day. A habit like that can aggravate reflux and burping, she explains, because the acidity in coffee irritates the ring of muscle that’s supposed to tighten to prevent stomach juices from entering the esophagus.
Try limiting caffeine, alcohol, and spicy and fatty foods, as well as eating several smaller meals rather than a big breakfast, lunch, and dinner to see if your symptoms improve.
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You may have a case of gastritis
Burping could also be a symptom of a type of tummy trouble called gastritis–inflammation of the lining of the stomach–especially if you also have upper belly pain, nausea or vomiting, indigestion, or loss of appetite.
Lots of things can irritate your stomach lining, including infection, too much alcohol, spicy foods, smoking, and long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers. Talk to a doctor about your symptoms to identify the best course of treatment.
If you burp and end up regurgitating a bit of undigested food into your mouth, you could have something called rumination syndrome.
People with this condition spit up undigested or partially digested food into their mouths after most meals, then chew it again or spit it out. It’s thought to be an unconscious habit involving contraction of muscles around the abdomen.
Rumination is seen most often in infants and people with mental and emotional impairments, but it can occur in otherwise healthy adults. Talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms; psychologists can teach patients techniques for before and after meals that can help keep rumination syndrome at bay.