To make things even more confusing, some symptoms of acid reflux can overlap with one chronic condition you may have never thought to consider—allergies. So with all these suspects in the case of what’s making you feel sick, how do you figure out which condition is the culprit?
The first step is reading this guide so you know all about how to spot the symptoms of acid reflux and allergies.
Studies show that people who suffer from allergic rhinitis (the medical term for allergies) are more likely to also have gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD), the chronic form of acid reflux. This doesn’t necessarily mean that allergies cause acid reflux, but there seems to be a relationship between the two conditions.
On the flip side, GERD can worsen allergy symptoms. That could be because both conditions impact your upper respiratory system, which includes your nose, mouth, and throat.
And as you may know from antihistamine commercials (or personal experience), coughing is a common symptom of allergies too. So how can you tell what’s causing your cough? One good clue is whether or not you’re also sneezing—if so, it’s more likely that you’re dealing with allergies, because sneezing isn’t a symptom of acid reflux.
Post-nasal drip is the gross feeling you get when there’s too much mucus in your throat. You also might be swallowing more often than usual. As you might guess, the usual cause of post-nasal drip is excess mucus, a common effect of allergies that sometimes results in a runny nose instead.
Acid reflux is caused by stomach acid, not mucus, so you might be wondering how it could possibly lead to post-nasal drip. The truth is that it doesn’t, but the sensation of having stomach acid in your throat can feel a lot like post-nasal drip, especially when combined with silent reflux symptoms like a sore throat.
Paying attention to when you experience post-nasal drip is the easiest way to tell if it’s acid reflux or allergies. If you only get that feeling in your throat shortly after a meal, or at night when you’re lying down, it’s more likely to be acid reflux.
Also, any mucus you cough up will look different depending on which condition you have. Mucus from allergies is typically thin and crystal clear, while acid reflux mucus is thicker.
If you’re reading this trying to figure out whether it’s allergies or acid reflux that’s making you miserable, we’re sorry to have to add a third possibility into the mix—it could be both. As we mentioned earlier, the science suggests that you’re more likely to have GERD if you have allergies, and vice versa. So if you can relate to the acid reflux and allergy symptoms we’re describing, you may want to have a chat with your doctor about your treatment options for both conditions.
If you’re only feeling a cough or post-nasal drip at a certain time of year, it's much more likely to be allergies than acid reflux (because you eat year-round). Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be springtime to mean it’s allergies—depending on what you’re allergic to, any season can be allergy season for you.
To make matters more complicated, some allergens do cause symptoms all year, especially indoor irritants like mold and dust. That means that even if you have symptoms year-round, you could still be dealing with allergies. If you fall into that bucket, try noting whether you feel better outdoors—perennial allergy symptoms might let up with some fresh air, but acid reflux symptoms won’t.
If you’ve been faithfully taking an antacid or proton pump inhibitor (PPI) for some time and haven’t noticed any difference in your symptoms, that could be a hint that you’re not actually dealing with GERD. Bonus points if you find yourself wishing you could take your medication more often, or at times of the day when you wouldn’t normally expect acid reflux symptoms (in other words, not at night or at mealtimes).
Along those same lines, you may already be taking allergy medications on top of your GERD treatments. Of course, it could be the case that you simply have both conditions and need to treat them separately. But if you notice that skipping your acid reflux medication doesn’t make a difference in how you feel (or conversely, that forgetting to treat your allergies means a full slate of symptoms), you could be unintentionally overmedicating.
If this sounds like you, be sure to talk to your doctor before making any changes to your treatment plan. Some medications aren’t safe to stop taking out of the blue.
When you’ve already spent your time and money learning about and treating one condition, it can be frustrating to realize you might actually have something else. That said, it isn’t hard to spot the difference between acid reflux and allergy symptoms once you know what you’re looking for.
Paying attention to what symptoms you experience and when, as well as what treatment relieves them, is the fastest way to get some insight into whether it’s acid reflux or allergies. Plus, it’s a great way to gain a better understanding of your health and treatment needs, no matter which condition you’re dealing with.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Photo by Nick Fancher via Death to Stock