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GERD Awareness Week: Is it GERD? What Parents Should Look Out for

Nov. 20 – 26 is GERD Awareness Week to highlight gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Thanksgiving is only a couple of days away: turkey, casseroles, mashed potatoes and more! It’s also GERD Awareness Week to raise awareness of the complications of gastroesophageal reflex and to know the symptoms to look out for as you gather around the table. LaQuatre Rhodes, D.O, Gastroenterologist at Cook Children's Specialty Clinics in Prosper, breaks down what parents need to know or look out for when it comes to this common disorder.

What is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux is the passage of gastric/food contents into the esophagus with or without regurgitation or vomiting. It is defined as gastroesophageal reflux disease when reflux leads to troublesome symptoms or complications. A muscular valve is at the end of the esophagus to help prevent backflow of food/gastric contents, but when it doesn’t close well, it results in irritation of the esophagus and reflux symptoms. Symptoms of reflux vary by age.

What are the symptoms?

Infant/Toddler reflux symptoms:

  •  Crying
  • Fussiness
  • Back arching
  • Regurgitation
  • Vomiting
  • Dry cough
  • Feeding difficulties
  • Poor weight gain
  • Breathing difficulties (wheezing, pneumonia, stridor, apnea)
  • Recurrent ear infections

Older children reflux symptoms:

  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal pain
  • Regurgitation
  • Vomiting
  • Acidic or sour taste
  • Sore throat
  •  Hoarseness
  • Dry cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Choking

Gastroesophageal reflux may be seen more in children with certain medical conditions including neurologic impairments, prematurity, and pulmonary problems (ex. cystic fibrosis, asthma, laryngomalacia).

What are the “red flag” symptoms?

Other conditions which can mimic reflux require further evaluation especially in the setting of red flag symptoms. Some of those conditions include infections, pyloric stenosis, brain tumor, meningitis, hydrocephalus, increased intracranial pressure, metabolic disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, obstruction, anatomical abnormalities, and decreased gut motility.

Red Flag Symptoms suggesting a disorder other than gastroesophageal reflux:

  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Irritable, severe crying, or inconsolable
  • Seizures
  • Bulging fontanelles in infants
  • Increased head circumference in infants
  • Small head circumference in infants
  • Recurrent forceful or projectile vomiting
  • Vomiting blood
  • Vomiting bile
  • Vomiting overnight
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Bloody stools
  • Abdominal distention
  • Breathing problems (difficulty breathing, stops breathing, turns blue, wheezing, frequent choking, recurrent pneumonia episodes)

How do you treat GERD?

Reflux can be concerning as a parent, but in the absence of “red flag symptoms” and if the child is gaining weight well, there's no need to worry. Symptoms should improve with time, lifestyle modifications, diet modifications, and/or acid suppression. If at any point your child develops worrisome or alarming symptoms please have evaluated by primary care physician, gastroenterologist if established care, or local emergency department.

If there are no red flag symptoms present, initial management of GERD is conservative:

Lifestyle modifications

  • Staying upright at least 30 minutes after meals
  • Burping infants during feeds
  • Avoid tobacco smoke exposure
  • Avoid tight diapers or elastic waistbands
  • Weight loss if child overweight or obese
  • Elevate head of bed 30 degrees

Diet modifications

  • Thickening feeds with cereal or thickeners
  • Formula change to hydrolyzed or amino acid based formula
  • Avoid overfeeding
  • More frequent smaller meals
  • Avoid eating at least 2-3 hours before bedtime in older children
  • Avoid large meals before exercise or increased activity
  • Avoid acidic foods (ex. pickles, red sauces, citrus) spicy foods, carbonated drinks (ex. sodas, seltzer beverages), high fat foods, chocolate, and caffeine

Trial acid suppression for 4-8 weeks which may be extended longer based on clinical response and/or physician assessment.

  • Proton Pump Inhibitors (ex. omeprazole, pantoprazole, lansoprazole, esomeprazole)
  • Anti-histamine (ex. Famotadine, Cimetidine, Ranitidine, Nizatidine)

If alarming or worsening symptoms despite initial management, physician may proceed to gastroenterology referral and/or further evaluation including:

  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD)
  • pH probe
  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • Barium studies (ex.  Upper GI series, esophagram, swallow study)
  • Motility studies
  • Severe reflux resulting in complications must consider surgery referral for Nissen fundoplication if not responding to medications and no other disorder cause of severe vomiting.

About Cook Children's

Cook Children’s Health Care System embraces an inspiring Promise – to improve the health of every child through the prevention and treatment of illness, disease and injury. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, we’re proud of our long and rich tradition of serving our community. Our not-for-profit organization is comprised of nine companies, including our Medical Center, Physician Network, Home Health company, Northeast Hospital, Pediatric Surgery Center, Health Plan, Health Services Inc., Child Study Center and Health Foundation. With more than 60 primary, specialty and urgent care locations throughout Texas, families can access our top-ranked specialty programs and network of services to meet the unique needs of their child. For 100 years, we’ve worked to improve the health of children from across our primary service area of Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise counties. We combine the art of caring with leading technology and extraordinary collaboration to provide exceptional care for every child. This has earned Cook Children’s a strong, far-reaching reputation with patients traveling from around the country and the globe to receive life-saving pediatric care. For more information, visit