4 Surprising Signs You Have Acid Reflux

Forget heartburn. Gastroenterologists reveal red flags of the condition that aren't what you'd expect.
Throat burn and gas are common issues, but there are some other little-known signs of acid reflux.
10'000 Hours via Getty Images
Throat burn and gas are common issues, but there are some other little-known signs of acid reflux.

If you’ve experienced a sour taste in your mouth, lots of gas, heartburn or feeling like you just threw up a little in your mouth, you may have attributed it to acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

And that’s a fair guess.

But despite how many of us have it — and how well we know some of its symptoms — acid reflux has some side effects that are lesser known, too, according to gastroenterologists. Here’s what else to look for:

1. Ear pressure

Fullness in the ears may be more likely after you’ve been lying down, and here’s why: “Reflux material from the esophagus pools in the uppermost part of the throat where tubes connect the nasopharynx with each ear,” said Dr. Mark Tanchel, a board-certified gastroenterologist and partner at Gastroenterology Associates of New Jersey. “Reflux-induced inflammation increases pressure in these tubes, which can result in a feeling of fullness or blockage in the ears.”

He added ear pain, ringing in the ears and hearing loss are other related symptoms.

2. Difficulty breathing

Similarly, acid can get into and mess with your airways, too. “The proximity of the esophagus and respiratory system is the reason acid reflux can sometimes cause difficulty breathing,” said Dr. Ali A. Khan, a board-certified gastroenterologist with Gastro Health in Fairfax, Virginia.

He explained acid can cause infection or inflammation, which results in a shortness of breath.

Another factor to note: Acid reflux is prevalent in folks who have asthma, according to Khan. They may experience a chronic cough, chest pain and trouble breathing.

The key to knowing if acid reflux is triggering your asthma is taking anti-acids, such as Nexium and Priolosec, Khan said, and seeing if that lessens your symptoms.

3. Tooth and mouth problems

More specifically, sensitivity and corrosion of the teeth, sour taste and bad breath, according to Tanchel. He explained these issues can be a result of acid directly contacting the oral cavity.

Acid can be a strong, overpowering force. “Saliva protects the teeth by buffering acid and providing the materials necessary for tooth remineralization,” he said. “Gastric acid has the ability to overcome these defenses, and affects both pediatric and adult patients.

4. Chest pain

First, it’s important to note that chest pain has a wide variety of causes, according to Khan. “We always want to rule out the scary, life-threatening conditions first, like heart attacks,” he said, noting lung problems and inflammation of the chest wall should be addressed next.

“When these are ruled out, we consider if the chest pain is a manifestation of uncontrolled acid reflux, and this may warrant further investigation with an upper endoscopy,” he continued.

GERD does account for chest pain fairly often, in fact. Around 50 to 60% of noncardiac chest pain can be attributed to the condition.

How does acid reflux lead to chest pain, though? Like the other side effects, when that acid travels up your esophagus, it can cause chest pain (that may also radiate to the neck, throat and jaw), according to the American Heart Association.

Your doctor can help you treat the underlying issues that may be triggering acid reflux.
FatCamera via Getty Images
Your doctor can help you treat the underlying issues that may be triggering acid reflux.

What Can Alleviate Acid Reflux And Its Side Effects

Treat the acid reflux first, Tanchel advised, and that should reduce the secondary symptoms. The only caveat pertains to more concerning or seemingly unrelated issues. For example, he mentioned asthma and dental cavities as instances in which seeing a specialist is a smart move.

But back to the acid reflux. What at-home remedies are worth trying?

As far as dietary changes, Tanchel recommended trying to avoid caffeine, carbonation, acidic and spicy foods, alcohol, tobacco and eating late at night. Eating foods such as oatmeal, watermelon, yogurt and chamomile tea instead can also help.

When lying down, he continued, elevate your head six to eight inches off the bed or couch.

Over-the-counter and prescription medications are other options. “Treatment of reflux usually includes anti-acid medications such as proton pump inhibitors (i.e., Nexium, Prilosec) or histamine-2 receptor blockers (i.e., Pepcid),” Khan said.

If an infection of Helicobacter pylori bacteria in your stomach is causing the reflux, he added, an antibiotic regimen may be introduced, too. Your doctor will know more about this and if you need this kind of treatment.

Lastly, get this: Treating acid reflux isn’t just about taking medicine, but limiting other kinds of medicine when possible. “It is also important to avoid NSAIDs as these medications can cause damage to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract,” Khan explained. Examples of common NSAIDs include ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen.

When To See A Doctor

Needing to visit your doctor basically comes down to four factors: frequency, intensity, difficulty treating at home and the specific symptom.

“Individuals should consult a physician regarding GERD if the symptoms of heartburn or upper abdominal pain are more frequent or more severe than previously, or if they have tried over-the-counter or prescription medications for GERD for more than two weeks and the symptoms are not relieved,” Tanchel said.

As far as specific symptoms, Tanchel believes these are the most concerning and call for medical attention:

  • Chest pain
  • Back pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chronic cough (especially at night)
  • Wheezing or an asthma flare-up
  • Hoarseness or a change in voice
  • Feeling a lump in your throat

So, we’ve got two takeaways here: One is a reminder that the symptoms you’re experiencing may be caused by a surprising source, such as acid reflux (which is another good reason to visit the doctor when needed and at all possible).

And the second: If you’re noticing ear pressure, difficulty breathing, tooth/mouth concerns or chest pain, it may be a sign to try acid reflux treatments. But of course, the second and fourth side effects are also signs you may need to see a doctor (or even go to the emergency room) ASAP.

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