Heartburn: Not Just for Adults—Kids Get It Too
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).
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 and causing chronic problems, like regurgitation or vomiting.
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.
What Causes GERD?
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, medicines, and conditions can relax the LES, allowing acid to regurgitate.
If you child has GERD, the doctor may recommend avoiding:
All teenagers should also avoid smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. However, those with GERD have an added incentive, since these activities can worsen their symptoms.
Gastroparesis, also known as delayed gastric emptying, may also contribute to GERD in children. When the stomach empties too slowly, it may cause bloating, increased acid secretion, and esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus).
What Are the Symptoms?
Symptoms of GERD in children include:
To help your child communicate how he is feeling and to better understand the symptoms, the Children’s Digestive Health and Nutrition Foundation suggests asking your child the following questions:
What Are the Treatment Options?
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, medicine, and surgery.
Changing your child’s diet 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 his left side.
Medicines that may be prescribed to treat GERD in children include:
Surgery, such as a procedure called fundoplication, is rarely used to treat children with GERD. Rather, it is reserved for severe cases or when medicines and lifestyle changes do not relieve symptoms.
Take Action Now
GERD can be an uncomfortable condition for both you and your child. But, there is help available. Recognizing and relieving your child’s symptoms now may benefit his health down the line.
Children’s Digestive Health and Nutrition Foundation
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders
The Canadian Association of Gastroenterology
Dietitians of Canada
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Last reviewed May-11 by Brian Randall, MD