When you have an irritated or inflamed esophagus, also known as esophagitis, eating, drinking and swallowing can be very painful. 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 from hot, spicy or acidic foods, and incorporate more soft foods that heal esophagitis.
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, 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. If your condition is caused by acid reflux 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.
Foods to Avoid
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 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, you should also cut out 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. Chances are, you'll feel better and your inflamed esophagus will have a chance to heal.
Read more: The Benefits of Quitting Alcohol
Foods That Heal Esophagitis
If your esophagus is very painful and inflamed, try adding some foods that heal esophagitis. These might include cooked fruits, vegetables, avocado and fish.
All of these are easier to swallow than raw fruits and vegetables and tougher or more firm meats. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Read more: 7-Day Plan for a Liquid Diet
Other Helpful Tips for Esophagitis
In addition to what you eat, how you eat can have an impact on an inflamed esophagus. 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.
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, and if your meal is too dry, it's more likely to hurt your esophagus when you swallow.
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.
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, make sure you ask your healthcare 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 get worse, 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"