You're meeting up with a few friends after what seems like forever. You agree on your favorite cuisine. Sure, it's not the healthiest, but maybe it's okay to indulge this one time?
After the main course, you start to feel a burning sensation in your chest and throat. It’s nothing serious, but it's quite uncomfortable.
It’s possible this is just a one-time spell of heartburn that can be easily managed on your own. But if this is something that happens more frequently, it could be gastrointestinal reflux disease.
What is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a widespread medical condition affecting millions. GERD occurs when stomach acid flows up into the esophagus. While many people experience a mild form of acid reflux, GERD is acid reflux that happens at least once a week.
Common GERD Symptoms
Some common GERD symptoms include:
- Heartburn is the most common GERD symptom. Heartburn is a burning pain in your chest, often occurring after eating meals high in fat or acidity. You can also get heartburn from stress, alcohol consumption, and being overweight.
- A sore throat may occur due to recurring stomach acid that has damaged the esophagus.
- Constant belching is the result of increased swallowing. This causes a person to ingest more air in larger quantities and leads to burping and belching.
Is GERD Dangerous?
“GERD is not a benign condition,” notes Julie Foont, MD, a gastroenterologist at Summit Health. “Should symptoms persist or worsen, one should seek consultation with a gastroenterologist.”
If GERD is left untreated, complications may include:
- Pulmonary issues. Stomach acid can make its way into the lungs to trigger asthma, a chronic cough, and even pneumonia.
- Barrett's esophagus. Long-term GERD can advance to this condition, which is a precancerous lesion.
- Stricture. This is when your esophagus narrows, making swallowing food and drink considerably more difficult.
- Esophagitis. When your esophagus is heavily damaged by stomach acid, you may experience symptoms such as trouble swallowing, stomach acid regurgitation, and food impaction (when food gets stuck in the esophagus).
Be sure to consult your doctor if any symptoms or conditions start to disrupt your daily life. And seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing difficulty swallowing, pain when swallowing, or if food is getting stuck.
Who is at Risk for GERD?
While anyone can develop GERD, there are a few core groups at higher risk for developing the condition.
- Those with hiatal hernias. Hiatal hernias occur when part of your stomach bulges through your diaphragm. People with hiatal hernias experience frequent heartburn.
- Pregnant women. Pregnancy gives rise to many minor health issues, including GERD symptoms.
- Smokers. As with many other health conditions, smoking exacerbates it. Nicotine relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, which allows acid reflux to flow back up into the esophagus.
Eating larger meals late at night also increases chances of experiencing GERD.
Treatment for GERD Symptoms
GERD can be treated with the following methods:
- Medication. People with GERD benefit from medication that reduces acid reflux symptoms, like antacids. Antacids minimize the effect of heartburn by calming stomach acid. In particular, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) prevent stomach acid from being formed. There are other medications that can help heal damaged esophagus tissue.
- Lifestyle changes. If you live a healthy life that incorporates physical activity and a healthy diet, you are less likely to suffer severe GERD symptoms. Eating low-acidic and low-fat foods, getting regular exercise, and quitting smoking are other positive ways to control GERD symptoms.
There are many surgical and endoscopic options for patients who do not respond adequately to medications. If you have continued symptoms or concerns, you should seek consultation with a gastroenterologist.