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Acid reflux occurs when acidic stomach contents flow back into the esophagus, the swallowing tube that leads from the back of the throat to the stomach. When acid repeatedly “refluxes” from the stomach into the esophagus alone, it is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). However, if the stomach acid travels up the esophagus and spills into the throat or voice box (called the pharynx/larynx), it is known as laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR).
While GERD and LPR can occur together, people sometimes have symptoms from GERD or LPR alone. Having symptoms twice a week or more means that GERD or LPR may be a problem that could be helped by seeing a doctor.
Many patients with LPR do not experience classic symptoms of heartburn related to GERD. And sometimes, adult patients may experience symptoms related to either GERD or LPR like:
Signs in infants and children are different from adults and may include:
GERD and LPR can result from physical causes and/or lifestyle factors. Physical causes can include weak or abnormal muscles at the lower end of the esophagus where it meets the stomach, normally acting as a barrier for stomach contents re-entering the esophagus. Other physical causes include hiatal hernia, abnormal esophageal spasms, and slow stomach emptying. Changes like pregnancy and choices we all make daily can cause reflux as well. These choices include eating foods like chocolate, citrus, fatty foods, spicy foods or habits like overeating, eating late, lying down right after eating, and alcohol/tobacco use (see below).
GERD and LPR in infants and children may be related to causes mentioned above, or to growth and development issues.
Your primary care provider or pediatrician will often refer you to an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist, or otolaryngologist, for evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment if you are having related symptoms.
GERD and LPR are usually suspected based on symptoms, and can be further evaluated with tests such as an endoscopic examination (a tube with a camera inserted through the nose), biopsy, special X-ray exams, a 24-hour test that checks the flow and acidity of liquid from your stomach into your esophagus, esophageal motility testing (manometry) that measures muscle contractions in your esophagus when you swallow, and emptying of the stomach studies. Some of these tests can be performed in an office.
Options for treatment include lifestyle and dietary modifications (see below), medications, and rarely surgery. Medications that can be prescribed include antacids, ulcer medications, proton pump inhibitors, and foam barrier medications. To be effective, these medications are usually prescribed for at least one month, and maybe tapered off later after symptoms are controlled. For some patients, it can take two to three months of taking medication(s) to see effects.
Children and adults who do not improve with medical treatment may require surgical intervention. Surgical treatment includes “fundoplication,” a procedure that tightens the lower esophageal muscle gateway (lower esophageal sphincter, or LES). Newer techniques allow this to be done in an endoscopic or minimally invasive manner. Another surgical option uses magnetic beads to tighten the LES.
For adults, you can take certain steps to reduce or prevent occurrences of GERD and LPR, including:
Copyright 2021. American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. Last reviewed April 2020.