What is gastroesophageal reflux disease?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GER) occurs when the junction between the esophagus and the stomach is not completely developed or is abnormal. This causes the contents of the stomach to occasionally back up into the esophagus. "Reflux" of the acid in the stomach irritates the lining of the esophagus and can cause a form of "heartburn" in some babies. Gastroesophageal reflux is very common, especially in premature infants. Most children with congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) have gastroesophageal reflux disease.

What are the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux?

Almost all babies experience some form of reflux, "spitting up" their feedings on occasion. Most children and adults have some reflux too, often without being aware of it. When gastroesophageal reflux becomes more severe, it can cause:

  • A hoarse or raspy voice
  • Chronic cough
  • Wheezing
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Vomiting
  • Sore throat
  • Weight loss
  • Irritability

How is gastroesophageal reflux disease treated?

Mild forms of gastroesophageal reflux disease usually go away on their own over a period of months and require no treatment at all.

If necessary, tests will be done to determine the appropriate course of action for your child's situation. A barium swallow (PDF) or a nuclear medicine scan of the stomach emptying may be performed. Endoscopy (PDF), bronchoscopy (PDF), and pH probe studies also may be done to evaluate your child's case.

Treatment may include keeping your child in the upright position, thickening feedings, giving medication to reduce stomach acid, and sometimes giving medication to increase the ability of the stomach to contract.

Medical treatment is effective in most cases, and your child's gastroesophageal reflux often will improve on its own over time. Surgery is necessary in the more severe or unusual cases.

About surgery for gastroesophageal reflux disease

Surgery for gastroesophageal reflux disease is commonly performed at Children's and is typically performed by pediatric general surgeons. Surgery teams at Children's provide next-generation care to neonatal infants, newborns, children, and adolescents from throughout the Upper Midwest and consistently perform some of the most cutting-edge surgical procedures available, including newborn surgery, laparoscopic and other minimally invasive surgeries, and robotic surgery, when appropriate. Surgery for gastroesophageal reflux disease is performed at Children's - Minneapolis, Children's - St. Paul, and Children's West (Minnetonka).

Contact us

  • If you are a family member looking for a Children's specialist in general surgery or gastrointestinal surgery, please visit Find a Doctor.
  •  If you are a health professional looking for a consultation or referral information, please call Children's Physician Access at 1-866-755-2121 (toll-free).