For a number of sociological and cultural reasons, some gastrointestinal symptoms are perceived by most people as uncouth and taboo. Even though flatulence, for instance, is a totally normal bodily function, most people can’t suppress an embarrassed giggle if it happens in a public setting. But another classic example of this is burping, the common term for a release of gas from the upper digestive tract. The sound of burping (also known as belching) is already frowned upon enough, but it can be an even more unpopular event if the smell is unpleasant. Such is the case with the phenomenon known as sulfur burps.
Why Does Burping Happen?
There are various reasons the urge to burp can occur, but most of the time it’s a result of the normal practices of eating and drinking. Every time food is chewed and swallowed, it passes through the esophagus and into the stomach where digestive juices start breaking it down so that nutrients can eventually be absorbed by the small intestine. In the process of eating and drinking, however, sometimes air gets trapped in the stomach and needs to be expelled. Burping is one of the main ways this happens: the trapped air makes its way back up the esophagus and is released through the mouth.
Inadvertently swallowing air while eating is one of the most common causes of burping, but it isn’t the only possible cause. Carbonated beverages, especially when consumed in large quantities, are another very common cause of burping; the gas trapped in the little air bubbles gets released in the stomach and mostly escapes through the mouth. Chewing gum, smoking, hard candy, and eating too quickly can also lead to swallowed air and burping. Additionally, people with heartburn (acid reflux) often experience burping as a symptom of the condition.
What is a Sulfur Burp?
A so-called “sulfur burp” is essentially the same thing as any other kind of burp; the difference comes from the odor. The gas released during a burp is usually composed of odorless compounds like nitrogen or carbon dioxide, in addition to trace amounts of gas from whatever you most recently ate or drank. While no burp really smells pleasant, a sulfur burp is notably foul-smelling because of the association with the element sulfur. Indeed, many people liken the smell of sulfur to a rotten egg and therefore avoid it if at all possible.
What Causes Sulfur Burps?
The composition of the gas released when burping is a factor of the specific elements in your diet. Because, at the end of the day, the digestion process is really just a series of chemical reactions that have various byproducts. Different combinations can have different kinds of reactions and therefore different byproducts. Sometimes the digestive process leads to the creation of hydrogen sulfide gas, the primary chemical in the smell we associate with sulfur. When sulfur burps are experienced only occasionally, it can usually be explained by diet. Below are some food items that may cause sulfur burps:
- brussels sprouts
- cheese and whole milk
While perhaps not a welcome odor, the fact that the body occasionally produces hydrogen sulfide gas is normal and not a cause for concern. After all, many foods contain sulfur in trace amounts. Excessive production of hydrogen sulfide gas, however, can be an indicator of an underlying cause such as a gastrointestinal disorder. One of the more common examples of such a disorder is chronic heartburn, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In people who have GERD, a malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter causes gas and stomach acid to back up into the esophagus and cause burping (among other symptoms).
Outside of GERD and common gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), sulfur burps can be caused by certain kinds of infections. The digestive system is susceptible to infection by both the H. pylori bacteria and the parasite known as Giardia; in both cases, activity by these pathogens can lead to an imbalance in the gut microbiome that produces excess hydrogen sulfide. This can cause sulfur burps as well as symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, bloating, or abdominal pain.
Treatment for Sulfur Burps
Naturally the underlying cause of the burping will dictate the treatment method. For conditions like GERD or IBS, dietary changes and medication are often paired in order to bring relief from the symptoms. The same basic approach is used for infections in the digestive tract; antibiotics may be used to eliminate the infection, but modifications to one’s diet are also necessary in order to return balance to the gut microbiome.
For most cases of occasional sulfur burps, however, over-the-counter antacids or anti-gas medication are usually sufficient to improve digestion and reduce the smelly burps. There is also some evidence that digestive supplements like probiotics can reduce sulfur burping because of their impact on microbiota. Moreover, green tea, peppermint tea, and chamomile tea are all believed to improve bad breath as well as aid digestion.
Preventing Sulfur Burps
In the majority of cases, sulfur burping is a result of dietary choices and gut health. Because of this, the best treatment is actually just prevention. One of the easiest ways to do this is to avoid the “trigger” foods listed above or foods that contain sulfur. Some basic ideas—like drinking enough water and maintaining a healthy diet—are also beneficial for overall health as well as reducing the likelihood of the foul-smelling burps. Below are some more tips for preventing sulfur burps:
- drink fewer carbonated beverages
- cut down on alcohol consumption
- eat more slowly
- quit smoking
- avoid chewing gum
- avoid overeating by focusing on several smaller meals
- avoid foods high in sugar
Contact a Gastroenterologist
While you won’t need to see a doctor just because of some temporary bad breath, ongoing occurrences could mean a digestive problem. At Cary Gastroenterology, our board-certified physicians are dedicated to providing excellent digestive health care. If you have been experiencing sulfur burps or any other digestive issues, please contact us today to request an appointment.