Acid reflux happens when stomach acids travel back up into the food pipe, or esophagus, irritating its lining.
This irritation can lead to a sore throat, a dry cough, and wheezing.
Acid reflux is a common condition. A person may notice it when they are lying down or bending over, or after eating a big meal or spicy food.
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Why might acid reflux lead to a sore throat?
Heartburn is the most common symptom associated with acid reflux, but about 20 to 60 percent of people develop head and neck symptoms without any heartburn.
Heartburn is a very common symptom created by acid reflux, a condition where stomach acid is forced back into the food pipe.
The most common of these symptoms is a lump in the throat.
However, head and neck symptoms related to acid reflux can be misleading. For instance, chronic sore throat caused by acid reflux is sometimes misdiagnosed as recurrent or chronic tonsillitis.
When gastric acid comes into contact with the vocal cords, it can cause significant inflammation. If this occurs repeatedly, it can result in hoarseness, frequent throat clearing, coughing, or the sensation that something is stuck in the throat.
These symptoms are sometimes referred to as laryngeal pharyngeal reflux (LPR).
Scientific opinion is divided as to whether LPR is a symptom of acid reflux or whether it is a separate medical problem.
LPR often seems to begin as an upper respiratory illness with symptoms that may linger as a result of the damaged vocal cords becoming irritated by even a small amount of acid reflux.
Singers, teachers, and people who have to use their voice extensively on a daily basis may experience more severe symptoms of sore throat caused by acid reflux.
How to treat a sore throat caused by acid reflux
Over-the-counter and prescription medicines can neutralize or reduce stomach acids, which relieves the symptoms of sore throat.
Other medications may work by strengthening the muscles that separate the food pipe from the stomach. Strengthening these muscles will help prevent acids from travelling back up into the food pipe.
Some people can prevent sore throat caused by acid reflux by helping themselves in small ways. These include:
- Eating small, frequent meals rather than heavy meals
- Avoiding acidic, spicy, and fatty foods
- Avoiding carbonated, caffeinated, or alcoholic drinks
- Citrus and tomato juices can also irritate the lining of the food pipe
When to see a doctor
A person should see a doctor if they have:
- A sore throat that lasts longer than a week
- Difficulty swallowing, breathing, or opening the mouth
- Joint pain
- A lump in the neck
- Blood in saliva or phlegm
- A fever higher than 101°F
The discomfort caused by acid reflux is usually manageable, but if the symptoms interfere with daily life, then stronger medications or surgery might be required.
Anyone who feels that they have indigestion but also chest pain, shortness of breath, or pain in the arm or jaw should seek immediate medical attention. These may indicate a heart attack.
Complications of acid reflux
Some people who have acid reflux for a long time may experience complications. Acid can damage the cells in the lower food pipe, resulting in scar tissue that narrows the food pipe, making it difficult to swallow. The acid can also cause painful ulcers to form.
A complication called Barret's esophagus is also linked with acid reflux. This condition can cause changes in the tissue lining of the lower part of the food pipe. These changes are associated with a higher risk of cancer of the food pipe, esophageal cancer.
Endoscopy exams are routinely used to check for early signs of cancer in patients with Barret's esophagus.
Children with acid reflux
Alongside eating smaller meals, avoiding citrus and tomato juices may help to alleviate acid reflux.
Acid reflux does not only affect adults. Infants with acid reflux may refuse to eat or may be unable to gain weight. They may have breathing difficulties, or pain after eating.
Doctors think that acid reflux in children may be influenced by factors such as the length of the food pipe, the condition of the muscles in the lower part of the food pipe, and the pinching of the fibers in the diaphragm.
Children may also be sensitive to certain foods that affect the valve between the food pipe and the stomach.
When children have acid reflux, doctors may advise parents to implement some lifestyle changes.
These might include eating smaller meals, avoiding eating for 2 to 3 hours before bed or before playing sports, and avoiding tight-fitting clothes.
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, older children may be given antacids, histamine-2 blockers such as Pepcid or Zantac, or proton pump inhibitors such as Nexium, Prilosec, and Prevacid.
Other possible causes of a sore throat
There are a number of causes of sore throat, including viral infection, bacterial infection, and environmental causes.
The group A Streptococcus bacteria causes the throat inflammation known as strep throat, and diphtheria can also inflame the throat. Whooping cough is another type of bacterial infection that can affect the respiratory mucous membrane, causing a sore throat.
People who have allergies related to mold, pet dander, or pollen may experience a sore throat when they encounter these allergens. The allergic reaction causes mucus to accumulate in the throat, which results in pain and inflammation. Dry air can also make some people's throats feel raw and scratchy.
People who smoke or who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke are at increased risk of sore throat. Chewing tobacco or drinking alcohol can also irritate the throat.
Talking for long periods without rest, talking loudly, or shouting can strain the muscles in the throat, causing soreness.
In rare cases, a sore throat can be a sign of HIV or throat cancer.
People who have HIV may experience a recurring problem with sore throat. People with compromised immune systems are prone to oral thrush and cytomegalovirus infection, both of which affect the throat.