February 07, 2013 6 min read

When one thing leads to another, the end result can be for the better – like a chance encounter that brings about a career opportunity or a simple discovery that creates a thriving business. However, when you’re suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the ripple effect is less desirable. The leaking stomach acid that causes symptoms in your upper digestive tract can lead to problems in your lungs and eventually leave you short of breath.

While the exact cause and effect is yet to be determined, the link between acid reflux and adult onset asthma is clear – some studies have indicated that more than 75% of adults with asthma also have GERD. That’s why in allergy clinics, patients that seek help for their constricted airways are often referred to their primary care doctor or a gastroenterologist. As the reflux improves, the wheezing and shortness of breath, in many cases, resolves.

This begs the question: what does the connection between these two conditions really look like? Why do they appear to be so closely related? In this article, we’ll examine the relationship between GERD and asthma and explore available treatment options. Read from start to finish or use the links below to skip to the section that most interests you:

75% of those with asthma also suffer from GERD

Can GERD Cause Asthma Symptoms?

Does GERD cause asthma? Does acid reflux cause shortness of breath? How do you know if your acid reflux is causing asthma? In this section, we’ll explore all of these questions and dig deeper into the link between GERD and asthma. Let’s start by describing what asthma typically looks like.

If you’re experiencing symptoms like shortness of breath, a whistle or hissing when you inhale or exhale, coughing – particularly at night, and tightening or pain in your chest, you may have asthma and should see your doctor. Symptoms can vary from person to person and episodes can range from mild to severe. While the latter needs immediate medical attention, mild symptoms also need the proper care to keep asthma in check.

Interestingly enough, people who are diagnosed with asthma are twice as likely as those without asthma to develop the chronic form of acid reflux, or GERD, at some point or another. Although there isn’t enough evidence to state the definitive connection between the two conditions, there are theories as to why GERD can cause asthma symptoms.

People diagnosed with asthma twice as likely to have GERD

One theory concerning the connection between GERD and asthma states that the repeated flow of stomach acid into the esophagus damages the lining of the throat and the airways to the lungs. This damage can lead to breathing difficulties and a chronic cough, and may make the lungs more sensitive to irritants like dust and pollen.

Another theory is that acid reflux may trigger a protective nerve reflex that causes the airways to tighten in order to prevent stomach acid from entering the lungs. In some people, this tightening of the airways can cause shortness of breath and other asthmatic symptoms.

Here are some signs that GERD may be causing asthma, according to Cedars-Sinai:

  • Your asthma develops as an adult
  • Asthma symptoms intensify following a meal, exercise, or lying down
  • Your asthma doesn’t respond to standard asthma treatment

Can Asthma Cause GERD Symptoms?

While GERD can exacerbate the symptoms of asthma, the reverse is true as well — asthma can trigger symptoms of acid reflux. This could be due to the pressure changes that occur inside the chest and abdomen when one experiences an asthma attack.

Also, as the lungs inflate to an abnormal level, they can put an increased amount of pressure on the stomach, and pressure can push stomach acid upward into the esophagus. This, and sometimes certain asthma medications, can relax the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is the clump of muscles that typically prevents stomach contents from refluxing into the esophagus.

Treating GERD Symptoms

The good news is that when acid reflux is addressed, asthma symptoms can get better. Dr. Blair Jobe, one of the nation’s preeminent esophageal disease specialists, co-authored a study that assessed the patterns and proximity of reflux episodes in patients with adult onset asthma. The study found that 90% of patients who underwent laparoscopic surgery to resolve their acid reflux experienced improvement in their asthma symptoms.

Given the strong connection between GERD and asthma, it’s important for every reflux sufferer to know the signs of asthma. For some, understanding the link between the two diseases lends a higher priority to practicing effective daily habits. Then you can breathe easier knowing you’re doing your part to prevent reflux and the onset of asthma.

Methods for treating GERD

One of the seemingly easiest ways to treat GERD is by taking over-the-counter acid reflux medications. People suffering from GERD often take proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), such as omeprazole, to stave off symptoms, and medications like H2 blockers and antacids can be effective in some cases as well. If your symptoms are more severe, or if over-the-counter medications haven’t been working for you, then consider talking to your doctor about getting prescription-strength PPIs. It may be a good idea to discuss PPI side effects with them as well, to ensure these don’t worsen any asthma symptoms.

There are several natural methods for minimizing GERD symptoms as well. Try to eat smaller meals throughout the day, wear loose-fitting clothing, and, if you’re overweight, work on slimming down. If you have GERD, you should also avoid foods that commonly trigger acid reflux, such as:

  • Spicy foods
  • High-fat foods
  • Fried foods
  • Citrus fruits
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Caffeine
  • Tomato-based foods

Changing your sleeping position at night is another simple lifestyle adjustment that can reduce or eliminate GERD symptoms. Sleeping on your left side with your torso elevated can help to prevent nighttime acid reflux by ensuring that gravity keeps your stomach contents down. Consider giving MedCline’s Reflux Relief System a try — our doctor-recommended system keeps you in an ideal sleeping position through the night, keeping you comfortable while protecting you from harmful stomach acid.

Man sleeping in bed

Treating Asthma Symptoms

If your asthma is being caused by GERD, then oftentimes the best way to treat it is to address your acid reflux symptoms first. Finding an effective way to treat GERD can reduce your asthma symptoms — thus, you can potentially manage both conditions by focusing on treating acid reflux.

There are also a few approaches you can take when it comes to treating the asthma itself. First off, make an effort to avoid irritants and asthma triggers, such as dust, dander, and pollen. Additionally, you may want to ask your doctor about asthma medication that can provide short- or long-term relief.

However, keep in mind that, in certain cases, asthma medications like theophylline can actually exacerbate acid reflux symptoms. Don’t stop taking any asthma medication without your doctor’s approval, but consider talking to your doctor about treatment options that can help your asthma without triggering acid reflux.

Some other ways you can go about treating asthma symptoms include:

  • Taking herbal supplements
  • Practicing yoga
  • Biofeedback therapy
  • Acupuncture therapy

When to Seek Medical Treatment

If acid reflux occurs more than twice a week or if it’s beginning to interfere with your quality of life, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. Additionally, if taking over-the-counter medications and implementing lifestyle changes have failed to bring relief, then it may be worth exploring other forms of treatment.

Seek medical help if infographic

Your doctor can conduct a physical examination and run tests, such as an esophageal pH test or endoscopy, to see if your symptoms are the result of a condition other than asthma or GERD. With a definitive diagnosis, you can work with your doctor to figure out an effective treatment plan.

 

If symptoms persist, don’t hesitate to seek out medical treatment. If left untreated, asthma can potentially lead to life-threatening asthma attacks. GERD can also cause serious health complications if left untreated, and may lead to an esophageal stricture, ulcers, or Barrett’s esophagus.

Summary

There’s a definite connection between GERD and asthma, even if the exact reasons are unclear at the moment. Those who suffer from asthma experience GERD symptoms at significantly higher rates than the rest of the population. The good news is that there are several relatively simple ways to potentially keep symptoms at bay.

If your asthma is being caused by GERD, then treating the latter may help to eliminate the former. Speak with a doctor about the best course of treatment, whether that be taking medications like PPIs or cutting foods that trigger reflux out of your diet. You may also address symptoms of acid reflux by changing your sleeping position. Our clinically proven, doctor-recommended heartburn pillow can naturally reduce the symptoms of GERD by elevating your torso and keeping you on your left side through the night. Don’t let GERD and asthma diminish your quality of life — take action to relieve symptoms today!

References:

  1. “Asthma: Alternative Therapy .” Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/16730-asthma-alternative-therapy.
  2. “Asthma and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease.” Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, New England Chapter, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, asthmaandallergies.org/asthma-allergies/asthma-and-gastroesophageal-reflux-disease/.
  3. “Asthma with Gastroesophageal Reflux.” Cedars-Sinai, Cedars-Sinai, www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/a/asthma-with-gastroesophageal-reflux.html.
  4. Banki, Farzaneh. “Reflux Related Adult Onset Asthma.” Memorial Hermann, Memorial Hermann Foundation, www.memorialhermann.org/digestive/reflux-related-adult-onset-asthma/.
  5. “Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 22 May 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gerd/symptoms-causes/syc-20361940.
  6. Komatsu, Yoshihiro, et al. “Proximal Reflux as a Cause of Adult-Onset Asthma: the Case for Hypopharyngeal Impedance Testing to Improve the Sensitivity of Diagnosis.” PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2013, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23324842/.