6 Surprising Symptoms of GERD

Difficulty swallowing? It may be a sign of GERD. (Photo: Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock)

If you frequently experience burning pain in your chest or throat after eating, you may be suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease. GERD is a digestive disorder that happens when stomach acids and undigested food back up into the esophagus.

Previously, researchers assumed that when acids backed up into the esophagus, they caused chemical burns that damaged the lining of the throat and nearby tissues. But a new study has found that GERD symptoms are caused by swelling, not by burns. Researchers enlisted patients who had been diagnosed with GERD and successfully treated with medication. They tracked these patients after they discontinued their medications to observe the onset of the disease. Researchers were surprised to learn that while the patients did develop injuries to their esophageal linings, those injuries were not caused by burns from stomach acids, but rather from the the body's inflammatory response to those acids in the throat.

As many as one-third of Americans experience GERD symptoms on a weekly basis. Heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, but there are other so-called "silent" symptoms of GERD that you probably never associated with the disease. Check with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms regularly:

1. Bad Breath

Woman with bad breath
If you're brushing and flossing and still can't get rid of bad breath, check with your dentist to find out if GERD might be the cause. (Photo: pikselstock/Shutterstock)

If you have bad breath that no amount of brushing, flossing or rinsing will cure, you might want to check with your dentist to find out if GERD is the cause. GERD causes undigested food, bile and stomach acids to flow in a backward direction from your stomach into your esophagus. This can leave you with a bitter or sour taste in your mouth that leads to bad breath. Your dentist should be able to look at your throat and teeth to figure out if there is a medical cause behind your stinky breath.

2. Laryngitis or Hoarseness

Woman with laryngitis
Losing your voice? GERD may be to blame. (Photo: Aleksandra Suzi/Shutterstock)

Do you always seem to be losing your voice? GERD could be the culprit. When acid reflux enters your esophagus, it can also splash over onto your voice box, or larynx, causing swelling that alters your voice or makes it difficult to speak at all.

3. Dry Cough

Man with dry cough
One-quarter of chronic, dry coughing cases are caused by GERD. (Photo: Stefano Cavoretto/Shutterstock)

Chronic dry coughing is another silent symptom of GERD that plagues many sufferers. According to researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, as many as 25 percent of cases of chronic coughing can be attributed to GERD. Health experts aren't entirely clear on why GERD can cause coughing, but one theory is that the reflux of acids into the esophagus can splash into the bronchial tract, causing the body to react by coughing.

4. Asthma

Little girl with asthma
In a vicious cycle, asthma flare-ups can aggravate GERD, which can then make asthma symptoms worse. (Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

According to the Cleveland Clinic, more than 75 percent of asthma sufferers also have GERD. But while it's clear that GERD and asthma appear together frequently, it's a classic case of chicken and egg, because researchers aren't sure which condition is causing the other. Doctors do know that GERD can make asthma symptoms worse. And they know that asthma — and the medications used to treat it — can, in turn, aggravate GERD.

One possible connection between the two conditions is that GERD may cause swelling in the lining of the throat, making inhalation and breathing more difficult. If you have asthma that is not responding to traditional treatment, or if it gets worse after meals, talk to your doctor to find out if GERD may be the cause.

5. Earaches

Baby with ear pain
Earaches are a common symptom of GERD in babies and young children. (Photo: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

How could acids in your throat cause pain in your ears? When acids back up in the throat, they can affect the adenoids, or the small lymph nodes that are located where the throat meets the nasal passages. Swelling in the adenoids then leads to an accumulation of fluid within the sinuses and ears. This buildup of fluid can cause ear pain and infections. Earaches and infections are a common side effect of GERD for babies and young children because their adenoids are more prominent.

6. Feeling a Lump in Your Throat

Woman feeling a lump in her throat
GERD can cause sufferers to feel like they have something stuck in their throat. (Photo: Image Point Fr/Shutterstock)

Acids in the throat can cause the upper sphincter of the esophagus — the muscle that is responsible for closing the throat after eating — to swell, making it feel like there is a lump in the throat. Some patients have described this symptom as feeling like they need to cough up a furball. This "lump" can also make it difficult for sufferers to swallow without discomfort.