When you have an irritated or inflamed esophagus, also known as esophagitis, eating, drinking and swallowing can be very painful.
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In most cases, your esophagus will heal on its own, but in the meantime, it can be helpful to avoid irritating foods and slightly change your diet.
If you have an inflamed esophagus, steer clear of hot, spicy or acidic foods, and incorporate more soft foods that heal esophagitis.
Foods That Heal Esophagitis
If your esophagus is very painful and inflamed, try adding some foods that heal esophagitis. These might include:
- Cooked fruits
All of these are easier to swallow than raw fruits and vegetables and tougher or more firm protein sources. They can feel more soothing on your throat and esophagus.
Some of these foods also have anti-inflammatory properties, which may help reduce pain and swelling in your esophagus.
Dairy for Esophagitis
Dairy products such as milk, yogurt and soft cheeses may be tolerated, so long as you don't have an intolerance, according to Jackson Siegelbaum Gastroenterology. Ice cream, custards, puddings, sherbet and cottage cheese also count.
Avoid dairy products that contain nuts, seeds, spices, granola or whole fruits. Choose low-fat products over whole to reduce your saturated fat intake.
Keep Foods Cool or Room Temperature
In addition, stick to foods that are cool or at room temperature rather than very cold or very hot. They'll feel better going down.
Eat Pureed Foods
If swallowing is very painful, you can try switching to a pureed diet, which is easier to swallow. Just cook your foods until they're very soft, put them in the blender with some liquid like milk or stock and puree them until they're the consistency of smooth mashed potatoes.
Try a Liquid Diet
In the worst-case scenario, you may need to stick to a full liquid diet, which includes foods like soups (warm, not hot), smoothies or yogurt, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
What Causes an Inflamed Esophagus?
Esophagitis is an irritation or inflammation of the lining of your esophagus, the tube that leads from your mouth to your stomach. Its symptoms usually include burning, pain with swallowing or chest pain in your breast bone area. In some cases, you may even notice bleeding when you cough.
It can be caused by a number of different things. According to Harvard Health Publishing, the most common causes of esophagitis are acid reflux, excessive vomiting (often due to an eating disorder), infection or certain medications, like aspirin or NSAIDs, some osteoporosis medications or doxycycline.
A less common form of this disorder is called eosinophilic esophagitis, and it's caused by a food allergy. This type of esophagitis is rare, though.
In most cases, an inflamed esophagus that's caused by certain medications, vomiting or infection will resolve on its own once the trigger is eliminated.
Conditions such as acid reflux and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) release stomach acid up into the esophagus. This causes a burning sensation behind your breastplate, often referred to as heartburn. The burning feeling is often the acid damaging the lining in your esophagus. Stomach acid is often as low as pH 2.0, meaning it is very acidic.
If your condition is caused by acid reflux, GERD or a food allergy, it may take some time to identify your trigger foods so you can eliminate them and allow your symptoms to improve.
Esophageal pH Monitoring Tests
It's unlikely that you'll need to check your esophageal pH and acid levels unless you frequently experience pain after eating. Most people might have a little acid reflux every so often. It could be triggered by a particularly large meal or a reaction to a specific foodstuff.
If your doctor thinks you may have GERD or a similar condition, they may ask you to undergo an esophageal pH monitoring test.
The test involves passing a very thin tube down your esophagus and into your stomach. You keep the tube in place for a full day. After 24 hours, a sensor records the acidity levels in your esophagus. The test shows the general pH conditions.
There's also a newer method of testing, the Bravo pH monitor, which uses a wireless pH probe and causes little to no discomfort, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
A low pH of 4.0 or less may suggest that you have acid reflux or similar digestive issues.
Still, normal value ranges may vary depending on the lab doing the test, per Mount Sinai. For this reason, you should talk to your provider about the meaning of your specific test results.
Foods to Avoid When Your Esophagus Is Inflamed
An inflamed esophagus usually isn't caused by your diet, but certain foods in your diet may make it worse. It's often helpful to keep a food journal so you can track your symptoms, learn which foods make you feel worse and avoid them.
Most of the time, esophagitis is caused by acid reflux or heartburn. When acid from your stomach backs up into your esophagus, it can burn and damage the lining of your esophagus. Eating very spicy or very acidic foods can make your inflamed esophagus feel even worse because they can burn the inflamed tissue.
When your irritated esophagus is caused by heartburn, part of the diet to help it involves limiting foods that irritate this organ. The other part is avoiding foods that trigger heartburn in the first place.
The foods that cause heartburn can be different for everyone, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends avoiding these common trigger foods:
- Fatty, greasy foods like fried chicken or french fries
- Spicy foods
- Tomatoes and tomato products
In addition to eliminating these triggers, esophagitis diet restrictions also include citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits and lemons because their acid can irritate the esophagus.
Irritated Esophagus From Drinking
Sometimes, you can have an irritated esophagus from drinking certain beverages, like coffee or alcohol.
Coffee increases stomach acid, and alcohol is known to irritate the mucosal lining throughout your gastrointestinal tract, so they should both be avoided, especially if you have acid reflux.
Another reason to cut back on coffee is that when you drink it hot, the hot temperature can damage the lining of your esophagus. The same thing goes for hot tea, hot chocolate or even very hot soup.
The results of a research review published in the June 2015 issue of BMC Cancer found that people who drink very hot beverages (or eat very hot foods) have a greater risk of esophageal cancer than those consuming warm beverages. Researchers suspect it's due to damage to the cells that line the esophagus.
If you have an irritated esophagus from drinking, try cutting back on coffee, hot tea, hot chocolate and all alcoholic beverages for a few weeks.
The best drink for esophagitis is something plain and non-acidic, like water. Chances are, you'll feel better and your inflamed esophagus will have a chance to heal.
4 Other Helpful Tips for Esophagitis
In addition to what you eat, how you eat can have an impact on an inflamed esophagus.
1. Eat Slowly
The most important tip is to eat slowly and chew your food very well. Smaller bits of food that are chewed very well can travel down your esophagus much more quickly and easily.
2. Include a Drink With Your Meal
Make sure you drink while you eat to keep the food moist and easier to swallow. If you inhale your food too quickly, don't chew it well or if your meal is too dry, it's more likely to hurt your esophagus when you swallow.
3. Eat Smaller Meals
Eating smaller meals can also be helpful for esophagitis because they require less stomach acid to be digested. If your stomach produces less acid, any heartburn will be minimized and your esophagus won't be as irritated.
4. Avoid Eating Close to Bedtime
Finally, a tip that helps prevent acid from backing up into your esophagus is to eat dinner several hours before going to bed or lying down. If you stay upright after eating, you'll have gravity to help you digest and the acid will stay in your stomach and out of your esophagus.
When to Seek Medical Attention
If your inflamed esophagus comes on suddenly as a result of a new medication you're taking, ask your health care provider or pharmacist if esophagitis is one of the side effects. You may need to alert your doctor and ask about a medication change.
If you have a mild case of heartburn that's causing esophagitis, it will probably resolve on its own once you eliminate any foods that trigger heartburn and irritate your esophagus. However, if your symptoms seem severe or continue to worsen, talk to your doctor.
The American College of Gastroenterology cites chronic irritation to the esophagus as a leading cause of a more serious condition known as Barrett's esophagus, or even esophageal cancer. Therefore, seeking medical advice is highly recommended.
Monitor your symptoms, change your diet and see how your body reacts. If you don't notice any improvements, you may have an underlying disorder that requires adequate treatment.
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Esophagitis”
- National Institutes of Health: National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Eating, Diet & Nutrition for GER and GERD"
- BMC Cancer: “Consumption of Hot Beverages and Foods and the Risk of Esophageal Cancer: A Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies”
- American College of Gastroenterology: “Esophageal Cancer”
- MedlinePlus: "Full Liquid Diet"
- Jackson Siegelbaum Gastroenterology: "Soft and Mechanical Diet; Frank W. Jackson."
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Esophageal pH monitoring"
- Mount Sinai: "Esophageal pH monitoring"