The Link Between Acid Reflux and Shortness of Breath

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
February 10, 2022

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. 

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Symptoms 

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: 

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. 

Causes

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: 

  • Pregnancy
  • 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
  • Citrus
  • Onions 
  • Tomatoes and tomato products 
  • Fatty foods
  • Fried foods
  • Chocolate 
  • Alcohol 
  • Coffee
  • Peppermint
  • Carbonated beverages

A chronic medical condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, can also cause acid reflux.

If you suffer from heartburn often, and it doesn’t go away when you treat it with home remedies or over-the-counter medications, you may be diagnosed with GERD.

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.

Medication

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.
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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:

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

How do you know if acid reflux is causing shortness of breath and not something else?
It can be difficult to know if your shortness of breath is coming from acid reflux or something else. Generally, shortness of breath caused by acid reflux occurs when people have severe acid reflux or GERD that damages the throat, airway, or lungs. If you have heartburn once in a while, it’s also possible that your chest may feel strange or tight due to the burning. You can try treating your acid reflux symptoms at home, but if you’re struggling to breathe, go to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Can shortness of breath from acid reflux be permanent?
In severe cases, GERD can cause long-term damage to the body, including the esophagus, airway, and lungs. That’s why it’s important to seek treatment if you have frequent heartburn. Your healthcare provider can diagnose you and treat your acid reflux to prevent long-term medical concerns, including shortness of breath.
What is the difference between acid reflux and heart attack?
Acid reflux usually happens after a large meal, or after eating foods or drinking something that triggers heartburn. If you’re having a heart attack, you’d also experience other symptoms, like intense chest pressure, pain in your jaw and arms, fatigue, lightheadedness, or anxiety. If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 or visit the emergency room right away.

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.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.

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