Older white man holding his throat in pain

What is acid reflux?

Clinically reviewed and updated by Amy Magill, MA, RDN Feb 19, 2021 • 7 min

What is acid reflux?

The medical term for acid reflux is gastroesophageal reflux.

What causes acid reflux?

With acid reflux, the stomach contents, which are acidic, flow backward from your stomach into your esophagus.

What are the symptoms of acid reflux?

Acid reflux may not always cause bothersome symptoms, but over time, it can cause heartburn (a burning feeling in your chest or in your throat). Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a persistent and severe form of acid reflux. Symptoms of GERD can include trouble swallowing, pain when swallowing or even vomiting.

Who gets acid reflux?

Acid reflux can happen in healthy babies, children and adults. Acid reflux in infants is common, and it's normal for babies to spit up. However, ongoing acid reflux in babies with vomiting that causes weight loss or breathing issues often requires medical attention. If you’re concerned about your child’s symptoms, talk to their pediatrician. 

Acid reflux during pregnancy, especially during the first and third trimesters, is also common. During the first trimester, muscles in the mother's esophagus relax, allowing more of a backwash of acid that can cause heartburn. In the third trimester, the growing baby pushing on the mother's stomach can lead to acid reflux. Talk with your healthcare provider if your symptoms are bothersome or won’t go away.

What foods cause acid reflux?

There is no specific acid reflux diet that can reduce symptoms of acid reflux. There is also no universal list of foods to avoid with acid reflux. What aggravates one person's symptoms won't necessarily bother another person. Foods and drinks that people commonly think cause acid reflux include chocolate, coffee and other sources of caffeine, carbonated beverages like soda, spicy, fatty or fried foods, and alcohol. Although these foods have not been established as a cause of acid reflux, it is helpful to keep a food journal to help you compile a list of foods that may cause you discomfort.

Are there natural or home remedies for acid reflux?

Many people look to natural options in lieu of medication whenever they can. These natural alternatives include everything from acid reflux pillows to essential oil for acid reflux. In many cases, there is no evidence of efficacy that these "treatments" work. In fact, some natural remedies may be harmful. It's important to discuss any treatment program with your healthcare provider before attempting to self-medicate or spend a lot of money on products. 

Some people turn to apple cider vinegar for acid reflux. There is no evidence that apple cider vinegar is effective for this purpose. Drinking undiluted apple cider vinegar can damage your teeth and esophagus. Some people try baking soda for acid reflux. Baking soda (also known as sodium bicarbonate) is a natural antacid and can be used safely for occasional relief of acid reflux.

Does milk help acid reflux?

Milk is not considered an effective remedy for acid reflux as it can actually cause the body to produce additional acid.

How is acid reflux treated?

Acid reflux treatment falls into three categories: lifestyle changes, medications and surgery. Recommended lifestyle changes, the efficacy of which are debated in medical literature, include stopping smoking and changing your diet to avoid alcohol, chocolate and high-fat meals. Other lifestyle changes that have been shown to work include avoiding late evening meals (three to four hours before going to bed) and losing weight if you are obese. Elevating the head of your bed with a foam wedge or blocks so you sleep at a 45-degree angle or higher has also been shown to help people with acid reflux.

What to take for acid reflux

Over-the-counter (OTC) antacids, such as sodium bicarbonate or calcium carbonate (Tums), can neutralize the acid in your stomach. These medicines can help relieve mild symptoms. However, you shouldn’t use antacids every day or for severe symptoms, except after discussing your antacid use with your healthcare provider. Antacids are not recommended for use by pregnant women, people on certain other medications or people with kidney or other chronic diseases. 

Other OTC medications known as H2 receptor blockers, such as famotidine (Pepcid) and cimetidine (Tagamet), don't offer relief from symptoms as quickly as antacids, but they work for a longer period of time. Finally, OTC proton pump inhibitors, like lansoprazole (Prevacid) and omeprazole (Prilosec), block acid production and heal an inflamed esophagus damaged by stomach acid. 

H2 receptor blockers and proton pump inhibitors also come in prescription strengths, which your healthcare provider may recommend if OTC medications don’t bring relief. Long-term use of these medications should be discussed with your healthcare provider.

Surgical options

Lifestyle modifications and medications usually control acid reflux, but if medications don't help, sometimes acid reflux surgery is recommended. Surgery may be an option if your symptoms are severe and do not get much better when you use medications. It may also be considered if your reflux is causing complications, such as scarring or narrowing of your esophagus, ulcers or bleeding. Some people who do not want to keep taking medications for acid reflux may choose surgery. 

Talk with your healthcare provider for more information and specific recommendations to prevent and relieve acid reflux. Your pharmacist can tell you if any OTC acid reflux medications interact with your prescriptions. They can also give you specific advice about taking acid reflux medicines. Acid reflux can range from an occasional annoyance to more frequent, bothersome symptoms. If symptoms persist or worsen, see your healthcare provider.

Published May 2018. Clinically reviewed and updated February 2021.

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