As many as 20% of Americans suffer from acid reflux every day: It can be brought on by eating too much, eating too quickly, or by eating a food that triggers acid production in the stomach.
No matter the cause, acid reflux occurs when stomach acid or bile enters the lower esophagus and irritates the esophagus lining, causing chest and throat burning, upper abdominal pain, an unpleasant taste in your mouth, and sometimes gassiness or belching.
In more severe, chronic cases, acid reflux can cause shortness of breath and damage to your throat, airway, and lungs.
If you suffer from acid reflux symptoms on a regular basis—and your symptoms don’t go away when you take over-the-counter medicine—it’s possible you have a chronic condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
GERD is not just uncomfortable; over time, it can also cause inflammation to your esophagus and lungs and cause difficulty breathing.
If heartburn is a routine part of your life, it’s best to talk to a healthcare provider about your treatment options.
In this article, I’ll explain more about what acid reflux is, and its connection to shortness of breath.
I’ll tell you how acid reflux can be treated, and when you should talk to a doctor.
What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux happens when stomach acid flows back up into your esophagus.
Your esophageal sphincter—a small muscle in the tube that connects your stomach and mouth—relaxes to allow food and drinks to enter your digestive tract.
If this muscle doesn’t tighten again after you eat, acid from your stomach can move upward into the esophagus and cause heartburn.
Most commonly, acid reflux causes an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest (behind your breastbone) after you eat.
Acid reflux can also result in the following symptoms:
- Pain in your chest when you bend over or lie down
- A bitter, hot, or acidic taste in the back of your throat
- A burning sensation in your throat
- Difficulty swallowing
While these symptoms can occur anytime after you eat, they often worsen when people bend over or lie down too quickly after eating—especially after a large meal or when they’ve consumed foods that trigger heartburn.
Acid reflux happens when your esophageal sphincter doesn’t stay closed, allowing stomach acid to flow up into your esophagus.
Certain medical conditions and medications can make acid reflux more likely, including:
- A hiatal hernia, which causes your stomach to bulge through your abdomen
- Medications such as NSAIDS (aspirin, ibuprofen, aleve) and other anti-inflammatory drugs.
Foods and drinks can also trigger acid reflux and heartburn.
Some of the most common heartburn triggers are:
- Spicy foods
- Tomatoes and tomato products
- Fatty foods
- Fried foods
- Carbonated beverages
A chronic medical condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, can also cause acid reflux.
See a healthcare provider if you think GERD is causing your heartburn, because long-term exposure to stomach acid can damage your esophagus and heighten your risk of other health problems.
Acid Reflux and Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath, also called dyspnea, can happen when stomach acid that backs up into the esophagus enters the lungs, causing the airways to swell.
This usually happens while sleeping or lying down, and it can cause a person to cough or wheeze when taking a breath, or make them feel breathless.
Along with shortness of breath from swollen airways, severe GERD may result in fluid in the lungs or aspiration pneumonia.
Acid reflux can also cause problems swallowing, or a feeling of food being stuck in your throat.
This may interfere with your ability to breathe effectively.
Asthma and acid reflux
Acid reflux can cause people to experience shortness of breath on its own, but there’s also an overlap between GERD and asthma.
And it’s possible that GERD may make asthma symptoms worse, or even cause it.
That’s because stomach acid can cause damage to the lining of a person’s throat, airways, and lungs, making it harder to breathe.
In a person with severe GERD has difficulty breathing, a doctor may consider GERD as a cause of asthma if:
- The asthma began in adulthood
- The asthma gets worse after eating or when lying down
- The asthma doesn’t improve with treatment
If you think you may have either asthma or GERD, or if your acid reflux causes shortness of breath or a cough that’s concerning you, talk to your healthcare provider or a K doctor.
Your clinician can diagnose you with either condition and find treatments that can help.
Treatment for Acid Reflux
Acid reflux can be uncomfortable, and you may even dread eating if you experience it frequently.
Fortunately, heartburn is manageable with the right treatments.
Your doctor or healthcare provider can diagnose you and recommend a treatment that is likely to work for you.
Diet and lifestyle changes
Certain lifestyle changes, including shifting your eating habits, can help reduce acid reflux.
If you struggle with heartburn, limit heartburn-triggering foods and drinks.
Avoid eating large meals, especially if they’re greasy or fried, and don’t eat too close to bedtime.
Remain upright while eating and after meals, and don’t lie down or bend over until a few hours after you eat.
Other lifestyle factors that can help reduce acid reflux include:
- Quitting smoking
- Limiting alcoholic beverages
- Maintaining a healthy weight through nutrition and exercise
- Wearing loose-fitting clothing
- Elevating the head of your bed to prevent stomach acid from entering your esophagus when you lie down
If these fixes don’t work, your provider may recommend medication in addition to your lifestyle changes.
There are several over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications that can relieve and prevent heartburn, including:
- Antacids: Antacids like Tums, Maalox, Mylanta, and Rolaids help neutralize stomach acid and relieve heartburn symptoms quickly.
- H-2 receptor antagonists (H2RAs): The medications, including famotidine (Pepcid AC, Pepcid Oral, and Zantac 360), can reduce the amount of stomach acid your body produces. H2RAs don’t work as fast as antacids, but are more likely to help in the long term.
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): PPIs also work to reduce stomach acid. They can be especially effective when antacids or H2 blockers haven’t worked. Recently, some PPIs have become available OTC, including esomeprazole (Nexium) and omeprazole (Prilosec). Other PPIs, like rabeprazole (AcipHex), are only available with a prescription. Research shows that long-term use of PPIs can lead to kidney problems, including kidney failure, and increased risk of infections. Experts recommend using PPIs only for a short period of time unless otherwise directed by your healthcare provider. .However, PPIs do work best when taken every day, not as-needed.
When to See a Doctor
Heartburn often resolves after you fully digest your food or treat it with medication.
Check in with your medical provider if you have heartburn frequently or if your acid reflux is interfering with everyday life.
Some signs that you should see a doctor for heartburn include:
- Heartburn more than twice a week
- Symptoms don’t resolve with over-the-counter medication
- Persistent nausea, vomiting, or difficulty swallowing
- Weight loss due to difficulty eating
Talk to a doctor if you’re experiencing shortness of breath or persistent cough, whether or not they correspond with acid reflux.
Lastly, heartburn and heart attack share some symptoms.
If you have severe chest pain or pressure, or your chest pain is accompanied by pain in your jaw or arms, go to the emergency room or call 9-1-1 immediately.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?
Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.