Understanding How Acid Reflux Causes Shortness of Breath

GERD is a common but often overlooked cause of asthma, coughing, and wheezing

Most people associate acid reflux with chest tightness, heartburn, or a burning sensation in the throat. Shortness of breath and trouble breathing are common symptoms of acid reflux. 

Acid reflux (stomach acid reentering the esophagus) can be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea

Continue reading to learn more about the connection between GERD and shortness of breath and how to treat this symptom when it occurs. 

shortness of breath

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GERD and Shortness of Breath Connection

Acid reflux and GERD can cause shortness of breath. Research suggests that GERD often is an underlying and sometimes unrecognized cause of asthma and other breathing troubles. When stomach acid passes through the esophagus, it can enter the lungs and throat. That irritates those areas and leads to breathing problems, including:

  • Lung inflammation: If acid is breathed into the lungs, it can cause inflammation or narrowing of the airways, leading to bronchitis or pneumonia.
  • Upper respiratory irritation: If acid irritates your upper respiratory system, including your throat, you may experience postnasal drip, chest congestion, and cough.  

In addition, GERD can trigger asthma symptoms for people who have both conditions.

Other Symptoms of GERD

Symptoms of GERD include:

  • Acid reflux (burning sensation in the throat and an acidic taste)
  • Chest pain and tightness (begins after meals and may radiate up the chest)
  • Hoarseness (caused by throat irritation, most common in the morning)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Bad breath
  • Nausea or vomiting 

Chest pain is a symptom of GERD but also of a heart attack. Seek immediate medical attention if you have chest pain but are not sure GERD is the cause. 

Complications of Untreated Acid Reflux 

If GERD is left untreated, it can cause many complications, particularly in people who experience acid reflux multiple times each week. 

Respiratory Conditions

Untreated GERD or acid reflux is a cause of adult-onset asthma. It can also cause sinus infections, ulcers, and lung damage from acid being regurgitated into the lungs. These can be serious conditions, especially for people with other health concerns. 

In addition, the respiratory complications of GERD include:

  • Chest congestion
  • Cough
  • Hoarseness or laryngitis
  • Wheezing

Problems With the Esophagus

GERD takes a big toll on the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. Over time, stomach acid passing into the esophagus can cause the following:

Other Complications

Untreated GERD can lead to other complications such as:

  • Tooth decay
  • Sleep loss
  • Chronic sore throat

How to Manage Acid Reflux and Shortness of Breath 

Talking to your healthcare provider about your respiratory symptoms is important, especially if you have asthma or suspect you may have developed it. In that case, healthcare providers may provide additional asthma treatments.

Managing acid reflux can help you control and lessen your shortness of breath.

Lifestyle and Dietary Changes 

Lifestyle and dietary changes make a significant impact on people with GERD. If you have GERD or acid reflux, try these steps:

  • Avoid foods and drinks that trigger GERD (fatty, fried, and spicy foods, caffeine, and carbonated beverages). 
  • Eat smaller meals, especially in the evenings.
  • Don’t eat within three hours of bedtime.
  • Elevate your head for six to eight hours while sleeping, and sleep on your left side.
  • Lose weight if advised.
  • Quit smoking.

Medications

Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications can help treat GERD and acid reflux. These include:

If you’re taking Tums frequently or for more than two weeks, you should see your healthcare provider about acid reflux. 

When to Call a Healthcare Provider 

If you notice that your GERD or breathing is suddenly worsening, you should reach out to your healthcare provider. This is especially important when you notice new symptoms or when your existing symptoms begin interfering with your ability to do your normal daily activities. 

Summary

GERD and acid reflux can both cause shortness of breath, wheezing, and other breathing problems. GERD also affects your esophagus, making it difficult to swallow. Treat your GERD to lessen breathing issues. Lifestyle changes like avoiding foods that trigger GERD, quitting smoking, and sleeping on your left side may help GERD symptoms.

A Word From Verywell 

GERD is commonly associated with a burning sensation, chest tightness, and acidic taste. But it’s also a common cause of breathing problems like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Letting your healthcare provider know about any symptoms of GERD and breathing problems you're experiencing will get you the most effective treatment. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does acid reflux feel like?

    Acid reflux often causes a burning sensation in the throat or tightness in the chest. You might also experience an acidic taste or trouble breathing. 

  • How can you know if acid reflux is causing you shortness of breath?

    Talk to your healthcare provider about a possible connection if you have acid reflux or GERD and experience respiratory problems like coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath. Keep a journal to keep track of whether your shortness of breath and respiratory problems worsen when you’re having episodes of GERD. 

  • Why doesn’t your asthma medication help with shortness of breath?

    If the root cause of shortness of breath is GERD or acid reflux, you’ll need to treat those conditions in addition to asthma. Talk to your healthcare provider about a comprehensive treatment plan. 

  • Can acid reflux go to your lungs?

    The stomach acid that comes into your esophagus and throat due to acid reflux can be aspirated or breathed into the lungs. When this happens, it can irritate the lungs and lead to breathing trouble. If you're having severe shortness of breath or think it's an emergency, call your healthcare provider or 911 immediately.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and asthma.

  3. Cheyenne Regional. Complications of GERD.

  4. Ranjitkar, Sarbin, Kaidonis John A., and Smales, Roger J. Gastroesophageal reflux disease and tooth erosion. Int J Dent.

  5. Harvard Health. 9 ways to relieve acid reflux without medication.