11 Acid Reflux Symptoms You Need to Know—and When to See a Doctor
What is heartburn—and why does it feel so horrible?
Heartburn isn't necessarily a mysterious condition. The pain and burning in your chest or throat, which can also be called acid reflux, is caused by stomach acid backing up into your esophagus, according to the US National Library of Medicine. In fact, it's something that over 60 million Americans experience one a month—with a reported 15 million Americans suffering each day, per the American College of Gastroentrology.
Clearly, such discomfort in your chest would be easy to identify, right? Not exacftly—somtimes acid reflux symptoms are less obvious, or easily mistaken for something else. But, left untreated, heartburn can lead to serious issues, like Barrett's esophagus, for example, which is a precursor to cancer, says Timothy Pfanner, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, in College Station.
That's why it's important to get a firm diagnosis of heartburn, and then manage it, with the help of your doctor. But, to get the ball rolling, here are TK symptoms—both common and not-so common—that could mean you have acid reflux.
Here are some symptoms—both common and unusual—that could mean you have acid reflux.
You have sharp chest pain.
Clearly, chest pain is a telltale sign of heartburn—but it can also be a sign of a heart attack. In fact, many people mistake heartburn for a heart attack. While you definitely shouldn't diagnose yourself, there are a few ways to tell if your chest pain is heart attack or heartburn related.
In heart-related chest pain, for example, the pain will feel more like a tightness or pressure in your chest, and may spread to the back, neck, jaw, or arms. It's also often associated with sweating, dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing, or an irregular pulse. Heartburn-related chest pain, on the other hand, is typically a sharper pain that may be precipitated by eating a fatty or spicy meal and is affected by change in position (like laying down or bending over).
Still, if you're having chest pain and your'e worried, check with your doctor just to rule out a heart attack, says Walter J. Coyle, MD, gastroenterologist with Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California.
Your pain is worse when you lie down.
Because heartburn is caused by stomach acid that creeps back into your esophagus, your symptoms can worsen when you lie down or bend over. "If you're sitting up straight, gravity helps keep food in the stomach," says Dr. Coyle. "If you lose the gravity, you're more prone to reflux."
A qjuick fix? Many people with chronic heartburn often raise the head of their bed, so they're not laying completely horizontal. Eating meals right before bedtime is also something that should be avoided if you have recurring heartburn.
You have pain after eating.
Pain that sets in right after a meal—especially a big meal—often means the stomach is overloaded and its contents have nowhere to go but up. Luckily, there's a quick fix: "I would stress not eating big, fatty meals and watching [your intake of alcohol and tobacco]," says Dr. Coyle, who is a spokesman for the American College of Gastroenterology. (FYI: It's also another reason not to dine-then-recline.)
RELATED: What Is GERD?
You have a bitter taste in your mouth.
Sometimes acid escaping from your stomach can make its way into the back of your throat, leaving an icky, bitter taste in your mouth. In really extreme cases, this can cause choking.
If that happens—especially at night—you should see a doctor. "I'm very aggressive with therapy if patients wake up choking," says Dr. Coyle, adding that he usually recommends acid-suppressing medications like proton pump inhibitors, H2 blockers, and antacids. (Dr. Coyle is on the Speakers Bureau for Takeda Pharmaceuticals, which markets proton pump inhibitors).
You sound like you have a cold.
You might think you're in the early stages of a cold when your voice starts cracking, but hoarseness can be another heartburn symptom.
If stomach acid is seeping into your esophagus it can irritate your vocal cords, says Dr. Pfanner, who is also a gastroenterologist at Scott & White, in Temple, Texas. Pay attention to when your voice sounds huskier than usual. If it's after you've eaten, you may have reflux.
RELATED: 10 Reasons You Have a Sore Throat
Your throat is sore.
A sore throat is another classic cold or flu symptom that might actually be caused by digestive problems.
If your throat tends to ache only after meals, you may have heartburn. Unlike with a cold or the flu, however, this type of sore throat can also be chronic. If you don't develop other symptoms, such as sniffling or sneezing, consider acid reflux.
RELATED: 14 Ways to Soothe a Sore Throat
You have a nagging cough.
Many respiratory symptoms, such as chronic cough and wheezing, can also be due to heartburn, likely because stomach acid is getting into your lungs.
If you suspect heartburn is at the root of your breathing difficulties—possibly because it occurs immediately after eating—you may want to talk to your doctor about getting a pH test. The test is an outpatient procedure that measures the amount of acid in your esophagus over a 24-hour period and can help determine if you have acid reflux.
Your asthma gets triggered—often.
The coughing and wheezing from heartburn can get so bad they could become triggers for asthma.
It is not clear, however, if frequent heartburn actually causes people to develop asthma. Although many people who have heartburn also have asthma and vice versa, the reasons for this overlap aren't clear.
Experts think stomach acid can trigger nerves in the chest to constrict your breathing tubes in order to keep acid from entering. Again, a simple pH test to look for acid in your esophagus may help you get to the bottom of the problem.
You feel nauseous after meals often.
Nausea is associated with so many things that it can be hard to attribute it to reflux. But, says Dr. Coyle, "in some people, the only manifestation they have of reflux is nausea. If you have nausea and can't figure out why, one of the things [to] think about is reflux."
And if the nausea tends to come on right after meals, that's even more of an indication that it might be acid reflux. If so, a regular antacid treatment such as an over-the-counter acid-countering medicine could cut down on your discomfort.
RELATED: 10 Natural Ways to Beat Heartburn
Your mouth fills with saliva suddenly.
If your mouth all of a sudden starts producing extra saliva, it could be water brash, which is highly suggestive of acid reflux, Dr. Coyle says.
It involves the same nerves and reflex as when you vomit. "It is your body trying to wash out an irritant in your esophagus," he says.
RELATED: 13 Foods That Fight Acid Reflux
You have trouble swallowing.
Over time, the continuous cycle of damage and healing after acid reflux causes scarring, Dr. Pfanner says. This, in turn, causes swelling in the lower-esophagus tissue, resulting in a narrowing of the esophagus and difficulty swallowing.
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