Heartburn in Children: GERD vs. Acid Reflux?

It is normal for babies, children and teenagers to occasionally get acid reflux after eating. This burning sensation in the chest is also known as heartburn and is generally harmless.

When acid reflux happens a lot, your child may have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD is not only uncomfortable. If left untreated, GERD can lead to:

At the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, our experienced pediatric gastroenterologists are experts at diagnosing and treating GERD in babies, children and teenagers.

GERD: Common Cause and Symptoms

GERD is often caused by a weak sphincter muscle in the esophagus, which is the tube that connects the stomach to the mouth. As a result, food and stomach acids can flow up the esophagus to the throat, instead of moving down to the stomach.

In addition to frequent heartburn, children with GERD may have other chronic symptoms, including:

  • Swallowing problems
  • Bad breath
  • Nausea
  • Breathing problems
  • Chronic cough

Signs of GERD in Babies and Toddlers

GERD symptoms may be different in very young children and infants.

Younger children with GERD may not experience heartburn. If they do, they may have trouble describing the feeling. Instead they might complain of stomach or chest pain or become unusually irritable after eating. Other symptoms include sour breath, refusing to eat and spitting up food or vomiting.

GERD Treatment in Children and Teens

Lifestyle and diet changes, along with prescription medications, can help treat GERD in many children and teenagers.

Patients often benefit from avoiding certain high-acid foods (e.g., tomatoes) as well as spicy, greasy and high-fat foods. Some children may also benefit from losing excess weight or eating smaller meals more frequently. Parents and caregivers can team up with our experienced dieticians to test various diet changes and monitor their child’s symptoms.

GERD prescription medications include histamine-2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors. These drugs can be very effective in treating GERD that does not respond to diet changes. Our pediatric specialists can talk with you about any possible side effects your child may experience with these drugs. Most children eventually stop taking the medications after their esophagus heals and GERD symptoms diminish.

If medication and lifestyle changes fail to improve a child’s symptoms, our pediatric gastroenterologists may recommend endoscopy. This involves threading a thin tube (endoscope) down the throat and into the esophagus, stomach, and first portion of small intestine. Children are sedated during the procedure.

A tiny light and camera on the endoscope allow our physicians to see the esophagus up close and collect tissue to determine what is causing or contributing to your child’s symptoms. The test may also reveal other esophageal conditions, such as eosinophilic esophagitis, that produce GERD-like symptoms.

For teenagers preparing to transition to an adult specialist, our pediatric gastroenterologists can easily help transition their care to the experts at the UChicago Medicine’s Center for Esophageal Diseases.

Request an Appointment

The information you provide will enable us to assist you as efficiently as possible. A representative will contact you within one to two business days to help you schedule an appointment.

You can also make an appointment with our providers by:

Scheduling a virtual video visit to see a provider from the comfort of your home

Requesting an online second opinion from our specialists 

To speak to someone directly, please call 1-888-824-0200. If you have symptoms of an urgent nature, please call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately.


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Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition