Healthy Body

Acid Reflux Can Actually Make Breathing Harder—Here’s Why

Photo: Getty Images/ Doucefleur
Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid travels up to your esophagus (the tube between your throat and stomach) and sometimes into your mouth—which your body doesn’t like. So if you have acid reflux, you understand how awful it feels: there’s the burning in your throat, the heartburn, and the throwing up a little in your mouth. But did you know it can also be why you struggle to breathe?

Yep, it’s true! Your stomach acid causes irritation, resulting in pain and swelling, says Brynna Connor, MD, a healthcare ambassador at NorthWest Pharmacy. And your airways step in to assist—though it may not feel so helpful. “The airways respond by exerting defensive mechanisms such as cough, bronchospasm, and the production of excess respiratory mucus,” adds Deborah Lee, MD, a general practitioner with Dr. Fox Online Pharmacy.

As a result, your airways get swollen, and, you guessed it, breathing can become more difficult, Dr. Connor says. She also says acid reflux can worsen if you already have breathing problems, such as asthma. In fact, up to 89 percent of people with asthma also have GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.

What can help you breathe during an acid reflux episode

You may have noticed being in bed also exacerbates your acid reflux. “The reflux is usually worse when the patient is lying flat because gravity plays a role in the movement of the acidic fluid in the stomach,” says Arundathi Rao, MD, adding that acid reflux symptoms can cause both temporary and permanent damage to your lungs (which would result in shortness of breath)

The risk of permanent lung damage and not being able to breathe are scary—but you can take comfort in the fact that at-home treatments can help. One tip Dr. Lee mentions is diaphragmatic breathing. She explains how to do it: First, make sure you’re sitting or standing upright and are relaxed. Next, exhale for as long as possible, then inhale through your nose slowly while sucking in your abdomen. Slowly breathe out, and repeat.

As far as daily best practices, try to eat slowly, avoid carbonated drinks, and stay upright without moving too quickly after eating. Dr. Rao adds that avoiding spicy and acidic foods, such as red sauce, coffee, chocolate, and hot sauce, can help and elevating your head with multiple pillows and not eating late at night. Surgery is even an option you and your doctor can consider, he says, for ongoing GERD issues.

Dr. Connor recommends taking antacids. If you also have asthma, she suggests treating that as you usually would. FYI: In some cases, asthma medication can worsen acid reflux, but don’t stop taking it without your doctor’s permission.

Not sure if acid reflux is the cause of your breathing problems? If you have trouble inhaling, it’s likely from acid reflux, whereas problems exhaling are usually because of other respiratory conditions. Continue to monitor how you’re doing. “If these treatments do not help and the shortness of breath does not get better, people should consult their doctor immediately,” Dr. Connor says. “Shortness of breath is not a symptom that should be ignored.”

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