Is it allergies, a cold - or reflux?

Your runny nose could be a sign of reflux disease. kristian sekulic/vetta/getty images

If you're suffering from chronic symptoms like a sore throat, coughing and runny nose, it may have nothing to do with seasonal allergies, or a cold or flu. In fact, all of these uncomfortable respiratory conditions can be the result of problems in a neighbouring bodily system: the gastrointestinal tract.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, occurs when acid that belongs in the stomach backs up into the esophagus or food pipe.

It's more common as we age, and if acid comes into contact with the fragile larynx (voice box), voice-threatening laryngopharyngeal reflux can result. While most people think of heartburn as the primary indicator of GERD, many sufferers never experience a burning sensation at all. Instead, they're plagued by cold and flu symptoms like hoarseness and coughing.

While there's still no definitive test to confirm a diagnosis of GERD, involved procedures like esophageal pH monitoring can track how much stomach acid is present in the esophagus. Clark Rosen, Professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the university's Voice Center tells me that a simple indicator of GERD can be morning hoarseness which lessens or disappears over the course of the day.

While an entire patient history must be taken into account, Rosen notes, morning hoarseness is "a very good sign that reflux may be to blame."

If your voice is hoarse, you're coughing and your nose is running - but you don't feel sick - you may indeed be suffering from a form of reflux. Since people with GERD are at risk of long-term damage to the esophagus, it's worth discussing with your physician. In addition to medication, you can take simple steps to avoid acid reflux, such as eating smaller meals and avoiding food immediately before bedtime.


Clark Rosen. Director, University of Pittsburgh Voice Center and Professor of Otolaryngology, University of Pittsburgh. Interview conducted by phone June 9, 2014.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. US National Institutes of Health Public Information Sheet. Accessed January 30, 2015.

Continue Reading