Acid Reflux in Children

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Although it is common for infants to spit up after a meal, regurgitation in conjunction with vomiting after a meal could be a sign of acid reflux disease, also known as gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). Acid reflux does not just affect younger children; it can also affect older children up to the age of 14. After this, if the individual still suffers with acid reflux, they are treated as an adult.

What Causes Acid Reflux in Children?

Most of the time, acid reflux in children is caused by poor coordination of the gastrointestinal tract. Many children with the condition are otherwise healthy, although the poor coordination that shows in the gastrointestinal tract could also extend to the nerves, muscles and brain. In older children, the causes of acid reflux are much the same as in adults, some of which are listed below.

  • Anything that causes the lower esophageal sphincter to relax, as this allows acid to move from the stomach up into the esophagus
  • Anything that increases the pressure below the lower esophageal sphincter
  • Certain foods, such as spicy food, food that contains acid such as citrus fruits or vinegar and heavy food that contains a lot of fat
  • Certain drinks, especially sweet fizzy drinks
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Overeating, especially if enough food has already been eaten
  • Genetics – your child is more likely to develop acid reflux if you or someone else in your family suffers from it

What Are the Symptoms of Acid Reflux in Children?

The symptoms of acid reflux in children are much the same as the symptoms of acid reflux in adults, although there may also be other symptoms.

  • Frequent or recurring vomiting, especially after meals
  • A frequent or persistent cough that often brings up vomit
  • Heartburn and feelings of pain in the stomach and in the chest
  • Gas and abdominal pain
  • Colicky behavior, such as frequent crying, being overly fussy or wanting lots of attention
  • Regurgitation that brings up vomit
  • Having to swallow numerous times

In younger infants that may not be able to voice their feelings, other symptoms may become apparent.

  • Colic
  • Feeding problems or difficulty in getting the child to show any interest in food
  • Frequent or recurring choking or gagging especially after feeds
  • Poor growth
  • Breathing problems
  • Recurrent wheezing
  • Recurrent pneumonia

How is Acid Reflux Diagnosed in Children?

Often, parents can give the doctor enough information for them to make an informed diagnosis. However, if this is not possible the child may have to undergo a test, just so that an accurate diagnosis can be made. Below are two possible tests that could be used to diagnose acid reflux.

  • Barium swallow – this is a special X-ray test that uses barium to highlight the esophagus, stomach and part of the small intestine. The test will identify any problems with any of these areas.
  • Gastric emptying study – during this test, the child drinks milk or eats food that is mixed with a special dye. The food is then followed through the digestive tract with a special camera.

How is Acid Reflux Treated in Children?

The treatment for acid reflux in children tends to be geared towards a variety of lifestyle changes.

For infants, the treatments are as follows:

  • Holding the baby upright for 30 minutes after feeding
  • Elevating the head of the crib
  • Thickening bottle feeds, changing feeding schedules or changing food (on the advice of a doctor)

For older children, the treatments are as follows:

  • Elevating the head of the child’s bed
  • Keeping the child upright for two hours after eating
  • Getting them to eat several small meals per day rather than a few large ones
  • Getting your child to take regular exercise
  • Encouraging the child to make wise food choices

Medication may also be used if lifestyle changes do not make any difference to the child’s condition.