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Gastroesophageal reflux, also known as GER, is a common digestive complaint which can occur in people of all ages. Symptoms of GER can include heartburn or an unpleasant, acidic taste in the back of the throat. Gastroesophageal reflux can be more difficult to spot in children, especially infants who are still breast or bottle feeding.
Isolated episodes of gastroesophageal reflux occur in most people, including infants and children as well as adults, and are not serious when they happen infrequently. GER occurs when some of the stomach’s contents are regurgitated into the throat. This happens because the lower esophageal sphincter, which acts as a valve that separates the esophagus and the stomach, remains partially open after a meal instead of fully closing. In some cases the valve may open spontaneously, even if food has not been eaten recently.
The regurgitated liquid, which contains a small amount of stomach acid, can cause inflammation in the lining of the esophagus. This inflammation causes the most characteristic symptom of gastroesophageal reflux, the chest pain and burning sensation which is commonly referred to as heartburn. Someone experiencing GER may also be able to taste stomach acid or food at the back of their throat. Many people find they experience an episode of gastroesophageal reflux after eating a heavy meal, or particularly spicy food.
For most adults, treating gastroesophageal reflux is simple, as occasional heartburn and acid reflux symptoms can be relieved easily with antacids. In some cases, episodes of heartburn may become more frequent, resulting in gastroesophageal reflux disorder, also called GERD. This disease, characterized by two or more episodes of heartburn or acid reflux in a week, can cause chronic inflammation and irritation of the esophagus that can increase the risk of cancer. Dietary changes, weight loss, exercise, and other lifestyle modifications are often recommended for treatment of adults with GERD.
Children with gastroesophageal reflux may not always experience the same symptoms as adults. They may cough or have a sore throat, and may not necessarily have heartburn. Infants who are still being breastfed or bottlefed may appear to have colic or may simply be thought of as a fussy baby, particularly after feeding.
In children and infants, GER can become particularly serious as the disease can cause sleep apnea, breathing problems, and malnutrition. Babies with the disease tend to vomit after most meals, spitting up with greater force than normal. Symptoms are thought to be more common in children with Down syndrome, as children with this genetic disorder often have poor muscle tone.