Like adults, children can get heartburn. They often outgrow it. Lifestyle changes or medications can help prevent health problems later in life if it persists.
Many people believe adults are the only ones who get heartburn. However, people of any age can get that burning feeling in the chest and throat, including toddlers, young children, teens, and even infants.
Although parents or caregivers may instinctively worry about the heart when a child complains of chest pain, heartburn does not involve the heart. The source of heartburn is generally in the stomach and esophagus. The typical cause is gastroesophageal reflux (GER).
This article explores the causes and treatment of heartburn in childhood and offers some tips for preventing and treating it.
Heartburn is usually the result of GER, which can cause other symptoms in children, such as:
People often confuse heartburn, GER, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). These are related but distinct conditions:
- GER is what most people experience from time to time when the acid and food in the stomach back up into the esophagus. Other terms for this condition include reflux, acid reflux, or indigestion. Its main symptom is heartburn.
- GERD is a chronic form of GER that irritates the esophagus and can lead to health complications without treatment.
- Heartburn is the burning sensation in the chest and throat due to food and stomach acid backing up into the esophagus. While heartburn is a symptom of GER and GERD, it can also appear on its own.
Heartburn in children is often temporary and mild. It usually resolves quickly without treatment. It may be a reaction to certain foods or eating too fast or too much. Young people also often report heartburn due to the stress of a big event such as an exam or a competitive sporting game.
Reflux happens because the muscle at the bottom of the esophagus, the lower esophageal sphincter, does not close as it should after opening to let food into the stomach.
It can occur in infants under 1 year old whose digestive systems are not fully developed. Reflux usually diminishes as they grow and the sphincter muscle gets stronger.
- being born prematurely
- having a health condition that affects the lungs or nervous system
- having digestive tract disorders or abnormalities, such as a hiatal hernia
Other factors that
The main symptom of heartburn is a burning pain in the chest.
Heartburn-related chest pain usually begins in the center of the chest and can move upward into the neck and throat. It is often worse after eating and when lying down. It can last a few hours and may wake a child at night.
GER and GERD symptoms
Heartburn is a
Although a child of any age can experience various other symptoms of GERD that accompany heartburn, a
- Infants or older children who cannot express themselves may tap their chest to indicate heartburn or develop irritability or fussiness around eating.
- Young children may experience:
- Older children may exhibit all the symptoms shown by younger children, as well as:
The above symptoms may also result from other medical conditions and do not necessarily indicate that a child has GER or GERD. Chest pain, in particular, can be a symptom of many conditions, such as:
- anxiety or stress
- respiratory infections, including colds, pneumonia, or respiratory syncytial virus
- costochondritis, which is inflammation of the cartilage joining the ribs to the breastbone
- heart conditions
It is also essential to distinguish between illness symptoms and typical infant behaviors. For example, spitting up or regurgitating is common for most infants during the first year of life.
According to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, about 95% of infants outgrow chronic reflux by the time they are 12–15 months old. It states that among children aged 3–17, only 5–10% experience symptoms that might indicate GERD.
A medical history and a physical examination are usually sufficient for a doctor to diagnose heartburn related to GER in children. Providing a record of what the child eats and when the symptoms occur can also help.
Treatment for presumed heartburn and other GER symptoms in those under 1 year old is rarely necessary because the symptoms are common and almost always outgrown.
Treatment for older children usually begins with lifestyle changes such as:
- dietary changes
- avoiding smoke
- not lying down after eating
- elevating the head a few inches when sleeping
A doctor may recommend medications or surgery if lifestyle changes do not resolve heartburn and other GERD symptoms.
It is best for parents and caregivers to check with a pediatrician about the safety of giving children any over-the-counter products that treat heartburn.
If heartburn and other GER symptoms are especially severe or persist over time, it is best to consider contacting a medical professional.
A doctor’s visit may also be necessary if an infant or a child has any of the following symptoms in addition to heartburn:
- regular reflux and trouble gaining weight
- signs of asthma or pneumonia, such as coughing, wheezing, or breathing difficulty
- vomiting several times a day
People should seek emergency medical treatment right away if:
- an infant throws up blood or bile
- a child has severe chest pain
- a child cannot breathe properly
Lifestyle changes may help prevent heartburn and GER or GERD in some children. Although
- avoiding foods that trigger heartburn and GER
- eating several smaller meals during the day and not skipping meals
- avoiding meals within 2–3 hours before bedtime
- not lying down after meals
- avoiding secondhand smoke
- adjusting sleeping posture so that the head is raised about 6 inches
Heartburn is common in children and often temporary. It is usually a symptom of reflux, which affects both children and adults from time to time. Infants typically outgrow reflux and spitting up after their first year.
If heartburn becomes consistent or severe in children and happens with other symptoms, such as a bad taste in the mouth and food backing up into the throat and mouth, it may be necessary to contact a doctor.
Lifestyle changes and medications can help manage symptoms in most children with heartburn.