Gastroesophageal Reflux in Babies and Children
What is gastroesophageal reflux?
Gastroesophageal reflux happens when food and stomach acid flow from the stomach back into the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. In adults, reflux is often called heartburn or acid reflux.
Reflux is common in babies and children, and it is usually not a sign of a serious problem. Most babies stop having reflux around 1 year of age. A child who continues to have reflux may need treatment.
What causes reflux?
Reflux happens because of a problem with the ring of muscle at the end of the esophagus. The ring of muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES. The LES acts like a one-way valve between the esophagus and the stomach. When you swallow, it lets food pass into the stomach. If the LES is weak, stomach contents can flow back up into the esophagus.
In babies, this problem happens because the digestive tract is still growing. Reflux usually goes away as a baby matures.
What are the symptoms?
It is common for babies to spit up (have reflux) after they eat. Babies with severe reflux may cry, act fussy, or have trouble eating. They may not sleep well or grow as expected.
An older child or teen may have the same symptoms as an adult. He or she may cough a lot and have a burning feeling in the chest and throat (heartburn). He or she may have a sour or bitter taste in the mouth.
How is reflux diagnosed?
To find out if a child has reflux, a doctor will do a physical exam and ask about symptoms. A baby who is healthy and growing may not need any tests. If a teen is having symptoms, the doctor may want to see if medicines help before doing tests.
If a baby is not growing as expected or treatment doesn't help a teen, the doctor may want to do tests to help find the cause of the problem. Common tests include:
How is it treated?
Most babies stop having reflux over time, so the doctor may just suggest that you follow some steps to help reduce the problem until it goes away. For example, it may help to:
For older children and teens, it may help to:
If these steps don't work, the doctor may suggest medicine. Medicines that may be used include:
Before you give your child any over-the-counter medicine for reflux:
Children with reflux rarely need surgery. It may be an option for babies or children who have severe reflux that causes breathing problems or keeps them from growing.
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