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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.

It can also cause heartburn, a bitter taste in the mouth, regurgitation, indigestion, and difficulty swallowing.

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.

Diagram of acid reflux in a womans chestShare on Pinterest
Heartburn is a very common symptom created by acid reflux, a condition where stomach acid is forced back into the food pipe.

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.

The most common symptom of a sore throat linked to acid reflux is a lump in the throat.

Other symptoms include:

  • sore throat
  • a choking sensation and tightness in the throat
  • a chronic cough
  • constant throat clearing
  • food sticking in throat
  • halitosis
  • a hoarse voice
  • a burning sensation in the mouth
  • a sour taste as saliva mixes with acid, known as water brash
  • red and irritated voice box
  • sense of mucus in the throat, or post-nasal drip

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.

Laryngeal pharyngeal reflux

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.

Reducing acid reflux reduces the risk of its complications, too. Often, small lifestyle changes can make a difference.

Home remedies

Some people can prevent sore throat caused by acid reflux by avoiding activities and foods that increase the risk of acid reflux and its complications.

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Avoid alcohol, tobacco, sodas, and acidic drinks.

These include:

  • eating small, frequent meals rather than heavy meals
  • not eating within 2 hours before bedtime
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • not wearing tight clothes
  • not smoking tobacco
  • avoiding acidic, spicy, and fatty foods, including full-fat milk
  • choosing soy or almond milk instead of dairy
  • avoiding carbonated, caffeinated, or alcoholic drinks
  • avoiding citrus and tomato juices, which can irritate the lining of the food pipe
  • avoiding chocolate
  • not eating mint or mint-flavored foods
  • avoiding stress, as far as possible

Medication

Over-the-counter and prescription medicines can neutralize or reduce stomach acids, which relieves the symptoms of sore throat. Various acid reflux medications are available for purchase online.

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.

When to see a doctor

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If you have difficulty swallowing, you should 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
  • earache
  • a rash
  • 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.

Narrowing of esophagus: Acid can damage the cells in the lower food pipe, resulting in scar tissue that narrows the food pipe, making it difficult to swallow.

Erosion of tissues: The acid can also affect tissues, causing painful ulcers to form. This is known as erosive esophagitis.

Barret's esophagus: 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.

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.

Overfeeding and allergies are other possible causes.

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.

There are a number of causes of sore throat, including viral infection, bacterial infection, and environmental causes.

Cold or flu virus: This is the most common cause of sore throat.

Strep throat: The group A Streptococcus bacteria causes the throat inflammation known as strep throat. Symptoms include a sore throat that starts suddenly, red and swollen tonsil, pain when swallowing, and a fever.

Diphtheria: This serious potentially illness can also cause a sore throat. Other signs and symptoms include swollen glands (lymph nodes), fever, and weakness.

Whooping cough: This is another type of bacterial infection that can affect the respiratory mucous membrane, causing a sore throat.

Other illnesses that can cause a sore throat include:

Allergies: 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.

Exposure to smoke: 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.

Shouting or talking: 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. HIV can involve a recurring problem with sore throat.

People with a compromised immune system are prone to oral thrush and cytomegalovirus infection, both of which affect the throat.