an estimated 19 million have burning and discomfort at least twice a week on a long-term basis and could be at risk for complications of a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
While GERD can’t be diagnosed by heartburn alone, heartburn could be an indicator of GERD and should be evaluated by a doctor. Thankfully, most cases of GERD can be managed with lifestyle changes, but ignoring it could trigger a variety of other health problems. Here are a few:
- Irritation or swelling of the esophagus (esophagitis). Triggered by constant exposure to stomach acids as they wash over the lining of your esophagus, it can cause pain and make your esophagus vulnerable to scarring and additional damage.
- Esophageal stricture. If your esophagus stays irritated long enough, this tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach may develop a narrow area filled with scar tissue known as a stricture. Strictures can make it hard for food to pass and may cause choking. Strictures can be corrected with procedures to stretch or dilate the esophagus.
- Hoarseness when you speak. Not every case of GERD comes with classic heartburn. You may notice your voice changes and you become hoarse, have a sore throat, or chronic cough—all of which may be part of untreated GERD.
- Asthma and pneumonia. As stomach contents wash up your esophagus, there’s a chance they could take the wrong path, entering your lungs. Anytime an outside fluid gets into the lungs you have a risk for the development of infection (pneumonia), shortness of breath, and the development or worsening of conditions like asthma.
- Tooth decay. Sometimes considered a symptom of advanced GERD, tooth decay occurs when stomach acids wash all the way back up to the mouth. You may notice this as a sour taste in your mouth and nothing more—but contact of acid with your teeth over time can cause erosion and permanent damage to your teeth.
- Barrett’s esophagus. Also an advanced complication, these precancerous changes in the lining of the esophagus can only be diagnosed by endoscopy—when your doctor runs a light and tube down through your esophagus and takes a sample of the tissue for testing. There are no symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus outside of what your GERD may cause, and if left untreated could lead to esophageal cancer.
What you can do to defend yourself against GERD
If you’ve been diagnosed with GERD there are many ways you can ease your symptoms and live a better quality of life. Medications are a typical first line treatment, but may come with side effects. Talk to your doctor about the best treatment for you and also consider:
- Changing your diet to avoid trigger foods
- Exercising and losing weight
- Not smoking
- Using a GERD pillow at night
- Eating smaller, more frequent meals
- Talking to your doctor about adjusting medications that may worsen GERD symptoms
Gastroesophageal reflux disease may develop from different causes and may present itself in many ways. Being informed about the complications that come with it is half the battle towards minimizing GERD’s negative effects. Talk to your doctor if you think you may have GERD and learn more today.
This is a blog post by Nancy Evans.