A burp—or a belch, as medical professionals call it—is the involuntary and sometimes noisy regurgitation of air from the stomach and mouth.
Every time you swallow—whether it’s a piece of food or a swig of a drink—you take in about 15 cubic centimeters (cc) of air.
Your stomach, though, has a limited amount of room: It’s not able to expand to handle all that extra air.
So it pushes about 75 to 80 percent of that air back out up your esophagus and through your mouth, where it usually exits as a burp.
The remaining air flows down into your digestive tract with the rest of the food you ate, where it is partially absorbed into your small intestine. A small amount makes its way into your large intestine, and is released through your rectum.
(In case you were wondering, air produced in your bowels makes up the majority of what’s released as a fart, but the air you swallow, like what’ll become a burp, comprises a little of it, too.)
Most people burp about 3 to 6 times after eating or drinking. However, you may not notice all the burps: In some cases, they are so minor you won’t even know it’s happening.
You may burp more frequently if you drink a lot of carbonated beverages like sodas, since you tend to swallow more air with them.
Still, that’s completely normal, and only occurs because of what you’re drinking.
In some instances, though, frequent burping can point to a more serious problem.
One potential cause: Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD—what you think of as heartburn.
When the acidic contents of your stomach move up into your esophagus—which is known as reflux—it can spark the urge to burp.
Over-the-counter medicines, such as Nexium or Prilosec, can provide relief from reflux by reducing the amount of acid in the lining of the stomach.
But they may also lead to bacterial overgrowth in your small intestine, which is another common cause of frequent burping. This can also cause symptoms like bloating, cramps, or diarrhea.
That’s right: Sometimes, the meds that are supposed to reduce reflux and burping can actually lead to a cycle of more burping.
If your doctor thinks bacterial or fungal overgrowth from those meds may be to blame, he or she can perform tests like a glucose breath test.
With this test, you ingest a set amount of sugar. Doctors then analyse samples of your breath throughout the course of the test.
If these samples suggest bacterial overgrowth, you’ll be given a two-week course of antibiotics.
In rare cases, frequent burping can signal a problem with your colon’s motility, or the process by which it liquefies food and pushes it out of the body.
That might mean there’s a blockage—say, by an ulcer or a tumour—that’s preventing food from emptying from your stomach. As a result, the food and the gases get stuck there, which sparks the urge to burp.
Bottom line: Burping a few times after eating or drinking is nothing to worry about.
Frequent burping—say, more than the 3 to 6 times after a meal, or if it’s happening regularly when you’re not eating or drinking—can point to a more serious problem.
Make an appointment with your gastroenterologist so he or she can check you out.
Edited by Christa Sgobba; information by Satish S.C. Rao, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of medicine at the Medical College of Georgia and the director of the Digestive Health Center at Augusta University. He is past president of the American Neurogastroenterology & Motility Society