When stomach acid backs up into the esophagus from the stomach, it can cause a burning sensation known as heartburn. This can make it difficult to have a full meal.
A person may also experience soreness, pain, and a feeling of fullness after eating. These symptoms are more common at night and can occur after eating fatty or spicy foods.
If a person with GERD avoids certain foods or drinks, they may experience fewer symptoms.
A person may be at an increased risk of developing GERD if they have a medical condition that increases the amount of acid in the stomach or the risk is higher in men.
- Acid reflux from smoking
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Thyroid problems
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
A person may reduce their risk of developing GERD by quitting smoking and losing weight if they have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher.
A person may also reduce their risk of developing GERD by improving their diet and taking acid-blocking medications if they have a BMI of 25 or higher.
When to see a doctor?
A person should speak with a doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms:
- A burning sensation in the chest that does not go away
- A burning sensation in the throat
- A sore throat
- A sore or scratchy throat
A person should also seek medical attention if they have any of the following conditions:
- A heart murmur
- Heartburn that does not go with a full meal
- A headache
- A hoarse voice
- A feeling of fullness after eating
- Persistent or recurring chest pain
- A cough
- Persistent loss of weight
- Persistent pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen
- Blood in the vomit or stool
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Weight loss
People with a BMI of 30 or higher who are starting to develop GERD should be assessed for GERD by their doctor.
How is GERD treated?
A doctor can diagnose GERD and recommend a treatment plan. The following steps may help them determine the best treatment option.
People can reduce their symptoms and improve their quality of life by taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications or dietary changes.
Some OTC medications that may help relieve symptoms include:
- Antacids, such as Mylanta, Maalox, or Rolaids
- H2 blockers, such as cimetidine (Tagamet HB) and ranitidine (Zantac)
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), such as omeprazole (Prilosec), lansoprazole (Prevacid), and pantoprazole (Protonix)
A person should speak with a doctor about the potential side effects of these medications.
Some dietary changes that may help prevent GERD symptoms are:
- Eating smaller meals
- Drinking less alcohol
- Eating smaller portions
A person should speak with a doctor about the potential side effects of these dietary changes.
A doctor may also recommend:
- Medications to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, called vagus nerve stimulation
- Gastroesophageal reflux surgery (GERD surgery)
- Surgery to reduce the size of the stomach
Some cases of GERD do not respond to dietary modifications, OTC medications, or surgery.
The person should discuss these options with a doctor and ensure that they have a full understanding of the associated risks and benefits.
How is GERD diagnosed?
Doctors may diagnose GERD by performing a physical exam and asking about their symptoms.
If a person has heartburn or acid reflux symptoms, they should see their doctor for a diagnosis.
A doctor may perform a test to determine the acidity of the stomach. This is called an esophageal motility study.
A doctor may order an upper endoscopy and a barium swallow test to diagnose GERD.
These tests help to identify if a person has excess acid in the stomach or the esophagus.
A doctor can use these tests to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment and monitor changes in the condition.
What is the long-term outlook?
Most people with GERD can manage their symptoms in time and reduce their risk of complications.
However, people with long-term GERD may experience complications such as:
- Barrett’s esophagus
- Esophageal cancer
- Scar tissue from the repair of a previous esophageal procedure
- Esophageal stricture
- Chronic cough
- Chronic diarrhea
A doctor may recommend surgery to reduce the severity of symptoms in cases where a person’s symptoms are not controlled by a doctor’s treatment plan.
The risk of a person developing GERD increases with age and they may also be at higher risk of developing other medical conditions.
Therefore, a person should see a doctor if they have long-term GERD symptoms and they are over the age of 55 years.
The good news is that after the age of 65 years, the risk of GERD decreases.
How can GERD be prevented?
A person can help prevent GERD by taking these actions:
- Eating smaller, more frequent meals
- Avoiding foods that trigger acid reflux
- Drinking plenty of water
- Avoiding tobacco products
- Taking OTC medications
- Taking medications to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, called vagus nerve stimulation
- Being physically active
- Having a healthy weight
Although there is no cure for GERD, a person can manage their symptoms and reduce their risk of complications by making these changes.
What happens if a person doesn’t get treatment?
If a person does not treat GERD and has symptoms, they are at risk of developing complications.
- A more severe heartburn
- An increase in the size of the stomach
- An increased risk of esophageal cancer
- Scar tissue in the esophagus
People can avoid some of these complications by seeking treatment for GERD.
How can they reduce their risk?
A person can reduce their risk of developing GERD by making the following lifestyle changes:
- Avoiding tobacco use
- Eating smaller, more frequent, and more nutritious meals
- Avoiding alcohol
- Eating smaller and more nutritious portions
- Eating more healthy fats
- Eating more fiber-rich foods
A person can also reduce their risk of developing GERD and related complications by:
- Improving their overall health and lifestyle
- Getting a flu shot annually
- Getting a flu shot every 4 years
- Having surgery to reduce the size of the stomach
- Getting a routine screening for esophageal cancer
The bottom line
Many people experience GERD, but it is not common. It is more common in people who have a weaker lower esophageal sphincter.
People can reduce their risk of developing GERD by making the following lifestyle changes:
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