Whether your child is a toddler or a teenager, they will occasionally suffer from diarrhea, upset tummy, excessive burping, abdominal pain, or heartburn. Sometimes stress from a big event in a child’s life – such as the first day of school, exams, or a sporting event – triggers a digestive upset. However, when digestive disturbances in children become more frequent, it’s a good time to seek an opinion from a medical professional.
Your child could be suffering from various digestive conditions, one of which is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which the contents of the stomach backup into the esophagus, causing troublesome, uncomfortable symptoms. This is because the stomach is especially equipped to handle the strong acid needed for digestion, while the esophagus does not have the same protection.
The main symptoms of GERD in adults include heartburn, regurgitation, and a bitter or sour taste in the mouth. Some less common symptoms are a persistent sore throat, hoarseness, chronic coughing, difficult or painful swallowing, asthma, unexplained chest pain, bad breath, a feeling of a lump in the throat, and an uncomfortable feeling of fullness after meals.
Children with GERD are more likely to report a general tummy upset rather than the most common symptoms experienced by adults. Children are also more likely to vomit or regurgitate, and might experience ear-nose-and-throat disorders. Sometimes younger children can’t express what’s bothering them, so they may become irritable.
Five things parents should know about GERD
- The main GERD symptoms in children are vomiting or regurgitation. Children might complain of a tummy ache, pressure in the chest, a feeling of something coming up into the throat, a burning pain in the chest, or might just seem irritable or agitated.
- While GERD does affect the pediatric age group, it is important to distinguish physiological or normal digestive occurrences from disease. Effortless spitting up or regurgitation is normal for most happy, growing infants during the first year of life. In 95% of cases, infants will outgrow this by the time they are 12-15 months old. This condition is actually reflux, a normal physiological occurrence, not GERD. Parents can relax knowing that spitting up or regurgitation rarely persists into the child’s second year of life, or perhaps a bit longer for babies who were born many weeks before their due date.
- A small percentage of infants who have very frequent or forceful spitting up, crying, coughing, distress, or weight loss, may actually have GERD or another condition. GERD is more common in children who are 2-3 years of age or older. If your child has these continual symptoms, seek medical advice.
- Between 5-10% of children who are 3-17 years of age experience upper abdominal pain, heartburn, regurgitation, and vomiting, all symptoms that might suggest a GERD diagnosis. Only a physician should determine whether it is truly GERD or possibly another digestive condition.
- The prevalence of GERD symptoms increases with age in children. GERD in children may also be associated with wheezing, chronic cough, bad breath, sinusitis, hoarseness, and pneumonia. As children mature, symptoms of GERD become more like those found in adults.
What to Do
Encourage your child to describe to you exactly what he or she is experiencing during any bout of uncomfortable feelings in the chest or stomach areas, or when he or she seems agitated. If you think your child may be showing symptoms of GERD, then speak to a medical professional for proper diagnosis and treatment. If a pediatric gastroenterologist practices in your community, it could be beneficial to have this level of specialized care for your child.
There are a number of treatment options available for childhood GERD, including diet modifications that a registered dietitian could recommend. Children seem to benefit from having more frequent but smaller meals. Your child’s physician might prescribe a medication, which is dissolvable and/or easy to swallow, to relieve symptoms.