Ask a CHOC Doc: Can Kids Get Heartburn?

Dr. Scott Gaitan, a CHOC Children’s pediatrician

By Dr. Scott Gaitan, a CHOC Children’s pediatrician

Q: Can kids get heartburn? What should I do if my child has heartburn? -Anonymous

A: Yes, kids can get heartburn too. To understand why, it’s helpful to understand what heartburn really is, and what it isn’t.

Heartburn is a burning sensation that occurs in either the lower part of the chest, behind the sternum, or in the upper area of the stomach. Despite its name, the burning feeling does not come from the heart, but rather the esophagus ― the long tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. A tight band of muscles known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), lay at the base of the esophagus. When these muscles relax, they allow food entry into the stomach. When the LES becomes weak and relaxes, it causes stomach acid to rise up into the esophagus resulting in irritation. We then perceive this sensation as heartburn.

There are a number of triggers for heartburn, but the most common cause is food. Acidic beverages such as coffee or orange juice have been known to relax the LES, resulting in the release of stomach acid. Foods high in oils and fats, anything deep fried, acidic foods such as lemons and oranges, as well as spicy foods are known triggers. However, tomatoes, garlic, onions and peppermint are the most commonly recognized foods that spark the infamous burning sensation.

Extra pressure placed on the stomach also commonly triggers heartburn. This may include eating too much food, obesity or constipation.

Aside from the burning trademark, there are a few other symptoms related to heartburn that parents should be aware of. The most common ones include a sour taste in the back of mouth or throat, as well as dysphagia, which is the sensation of food being stuck in the throat accompanied by difficulty swallowing.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication is a quick, affordable remedy to treat these symptoms that usually works for most people. Heartburn medications fall into three main categories:

· Antacids, which neutralize existing stomach acid

· Medication that lessens the production of stomach acid

· Medication that puts a stop altogether to the production of stomach acid.

However, if any of these OTC medications fail to work and the heartburn is accompanied with shortness of breath, radiation in the arms or neck, or severe pain, seek medical attention immediately. These may be symptoms of a more serious medical condition.

There are also several at-home remedies I recommend to parents. Monitoring the type of food your family intakes, as well as the amount of intake. I recommend five to six smaller meals with high protein and low fat along with the avoidance of trigger foods. Waiting a couple hours before lying down after eating is useful since that particular body position may cause the LES to relax.

Overall, leading a healthy diet, with reasonable exercise in a healthy, stress free environment are key factors in keeping heartburn out of your life.

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