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What Causes Sour Taste in the Mouth?

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Updated March 01, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What Causes Sour Taste in the Mouth?
Answer: When stomach contents reflux back up into the esophagus and reach the back of the throat, you may notice a sour taste in your mouth. This could be due to a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), where the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens inappropriately and allows stomach contents to reflux into the esophagus.

Normally, the LES works like a one-way valve, opening to allow food to pass into the stomach and then closing to keep food and digestive juices from flowing back into the esophagus. But if the sphincter relaxes when it shouldn't or becomes weak, stomach acid can flow backward into the esophagus, causing the burning sensation we know as heartburn and potentially a sour taste in your mouth.

Other symptoms of GERD can include:

Chest pain
This pain usually starts behind the breastbone (the sternum), and may travel up to the throat. It usually occurs shortly after eating, and can last from a few minutes to several hours. It is important to remember that sometimes the pain of a heart attack can be confused with the burning pain of GERD, and it is always important to seek medical attention if there is any doubt as to the origin of this chest pain.

Hoarseness in the morning
Irritation caused by refluxed stomach acid into the throat can lead to hoarseness.

Difficulty swallowing
Trouble with swallowing (dysphagia) occurs when food does not pass normally from the mouth through the esophagus to the stomach. There may be a sensation of food sticking in the throat or a feeling of choking. Difficulty swallowing should always be evaluated by a physician.

Persistent dry cough
In some studies, GERD accounted for about 41% of cases of chronic cough in nonsmoking patients. If refluxed stomach acid is breathed in, it can cause coughing.

Bad breath
When acid from the stomach comes up into the throat and mouth, acrid-smelling breath can result.

Heartburn can occur for a number of reasons. These include eating foods that often trigger heartburn, such as acidic foods (e.g. tomatoes and citrus fruits), drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, being pregnant, and being overweight.

If you suffer from chronic heartburn, you should speak with your doctor. The two of you can discuss a treatment plan that works for you. A doctor will usually suggest lifestyle modifications first. You can also reduce your chances of heartburn occurring by avoiding foods that can trigger heartburn, and learning how to sleep to prevent nighttime heartburn.

If these steps don't work to control your heartburn, your doctor will discuss other treatment options, such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). An upper endoscopy may also need to be done.

Sources:

"Heartburn and GERD FAQ." American College of Gastroenterology. 8 Jan 2010

"Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)." NIH Publication No. 07–0882 May 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). 8 Jan 2010

"Is it just a little HEARTBURN or something more serious?." American College of Gastroenterology. 8 Jan 2010

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