Sometimes heartburn is more than just a reaction to greasy or spicy foods. It can be a symptom of a chronic condition called GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease. GERD is a condition where there is a back-flow of stomach contents (including stomach acid) into the esophagus.
GERD is very common in the U.S., affecting up to 1 in 5 adults, but can also occur in children. It’s not only uncomfortable, but if untreated, can lead to serious complications including narrowing of the esophagus, dental problems, chronic hoarseness and even esophageal cancer.
Signs & Symptoms of GERD
The most common symptom of GERD is chronic heartburn (although some people with GERD don’t notice much heartburn).
Other symptoms include:
- A bitter/sour taste in the mouth from stomach acid
- Difficulty swallowing, or pain when swallowing
- Sudden excess of saliva
- Feeling that food is “stuck” behind the breastbone
- Chronic sore throat or cough
- Gum inflammation/tooth enamel problems
Symptoms may be worse after you eat, or when you bend over or lie down.
What Causes GERD?
A band of muscle, called a sphincter, at the bottom of the esophagus and top of the stomach should work as a barrier to prevent the back-flow (reflux) of stomach contents back into the esophagus. If that sphincter is weak or relaxed, it can lead to GERD. Other stomach issues, such as too much acid, can also cause the problem.
Other causes and risk factors include:
- A hiatal hernia (where part of the stomach has moved above the diaphragm)
- Being overweight or obese, which puts pressure on the stomach
- Consumption of frequent spicy, fatty or acidic foods
- Alcohol consumption
- Eating large meals, which stretch and put pressure on the stomach
- Eating close to bedtime
- Wearing tight-fitting waistbands, putting pressure on the stomach
- Gastroparesis, or delayed emptying of the stomach contents
Treatment Options, and When to See Your Doctor
Some lifestyle and over-the-counter treatments may help, including:
- Reducing your consumption of spicy, acidic, or fatty foods; caffeine; chocolate; carbonated beverages such as sodas
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco
- Eating smaller meals, and not eating within a few hours of bedtime
- Losing weight and avoiding tight-fitting clothes
- Elevating the head of your bed
- Trying over-the-counter antacids after meals and at bedtime
- Taking proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers, which lower the amount of acid produced in your stomach
If these actions don’t work within a few weeks, or if your symptoms become severe, see your primary care doctor. He or she can discuss diagnosis and treatment options with you.
Some statistics and information from:
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders
U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health