Acid reflux is a common condition that affects many people in the United States and throughout the world. The American College of Gastroenterology estimates that 60 million Americans experience acid reflux/heartburn at least once a month, which is the most common symptom of acid reflux. While acid reflux is not a serious disease, it can severely affect a patient’s quality of life. If left untreated, it can eventually lead to other gastrointestinal disorders that are more serious, such as Barrett’s esophagus and esophagitis.
Acid reflux is caused when there is too much acid production and the stomach contents come back up into the esophagus and throat. This extra acid in the stomach is often caused when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) isn’t working properly. After you ingest food or liquid, the LES allows what you’ve consumed into the stomach and then closes. In those with acid reflux or GERD, the LES doesn’t close completely, or in some cases, not at all. The amount of acid can differ between patients, which is why some only experience mild symptoms and some more severe (as in GERD). Read on to learn more about acid reflux, what causes it, and how to treat it.
Common Acid Reflux Symptoms
It’s important to note that gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and acid reflux are slightly different and that GERD has more signs and symptoms, such as a dry, persistent cough. The most common symptoms of acid reflux are heartburn, regurgitation, and dyspepsia.
Many people have experienced heartburn at least occasionally. Heartburn is a burning sensation or pain in the stomach, abdomen, or chest. Heartburn can also affect the throat or mouth.
If you feel a sensation of food coming back up into your throat, this is known as regurgitation and is another common acid reflux symptom. Regurgitation may make your throat taste “sour,” and can also present as a “wet burp.”
Dyspepsia is a symptom of acid reflux but also is a syndrome on its own. Acid reflux and dyspepsia are often comorbid. Those with dyspepsia experience burning pain, upper abdominal pain, nausea after eating, and bloating.
GERD may also present with other less common symptoms including:
- Dry, persistent cough
- Nausea and vomiting
- Upper abdominal pain
- Dental erosion
- Difficulty swallowing
- Frequent pneumonia
If acid reflux progresses to GERD and is left untreated, it can damage the lining of your esophagus and lead to other GI conditions and an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancer.
What Makes Acid Reflux Symptoms Worse?
Acid reflux can affect anyone of any age and is often due to lifestyle factors that can be changed. However, sometimes acid reflux is due to hiatal hernia, which is not preventable. Many pregnant women often experience acid reflux symptoms during their pregnancy. Some factors that make acid reflux symptoms worse include:
- Smoking (first- or secondhand)
- Medications such as antihistamines and antidepressants
- Being sedentary
- Caffeine intake
- Moderate-to-heavy alcohol intake
- Large amounts of sodium in the diet
- Lying down immediately after eating
- Spicy foods
- Carbonated drinks
- Large meals
- Citrus fruits and acidic fruits and juices, like tomatoes
- Low-fiber diet
If you are diagnosed with acid reflux or GERD, your physician will likely tell you to avoid caffeine and alcohol, quit smoking if you do, and employ a high-fiber diet and exercise regimen. In conjunction with pharmaceutical treatment, such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) or H2 blockers, acid reflux can often be controlled.
How Can I Temporarily Relieve Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is often mistaken for a heart attack or other more serious condition because of where the pain is, but you can often treat acid reflux with over the counter (OTC) medications. You can receive the quickest relief by taking an antacid, however, relief from antacids is often temporary. Proton pump inhibitors, such as omeprazole, rabeprazole, and esomeprazole, are sold over the counter. Side effects from these medications are typically mild if experienced at all. If taking OTC medications or making lifestyle changes doesn’t help, you may want to consider seeing a gastroenterologist.
When Should I Contact a Gastroenterologist?
If you begin to notice that you experience symptoms of acid reflux or heartburn more often, you should consult a gastroenterologist, particularly if it’s more than two times per week.
Acid reflux is often diagnosed without running any diagnostic tests and is based on a patient’s self-report. For example, if a patient has been taking OTC medications and making lifestyle changes to improve acid reflux and symptoms have not improved, this is often enough for a diagnosis. However, if your acid reflux or GERD is severe, your physician may order diagnostic tests, such as endoscopy, a biopsy, barium X-ray, esophageal manometry (measures pressure in the esophagus), impedance monitoring (measures how fluid moves through the esophagus), or pH monitoring, which measures the acidity in your stomach.
If acid reflux goes untreated and the esophagus is consistently exposed to stomach acid, serious complications can occur. Untreated acid reflux and a damaged esophagus have an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancers. Other problems that can occur include:
- Strictures. Over time, the esophagus can become scarred, which often gives patients dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). Sometimes a procedure is required for strictures to widen the esophagus.
- Esophagitis. Esophagitis can have many causes, but acid reflux is a leading cause. Esophagitis can cause inflammation, burning sensations when eating or drinking, bleeding, and ulcers.
- Barrett’s esophagus. The esophageal lining becomes so damaged that the cells begin to change over time. Barrett’s esophagus is often a precursor to cancer.
Many gastrointestinal disorders share the same symptoms, so if you’re experiencing gastrointestinal distress, it’s always best to consult one for proper treatment and to rule out more serious complications.
Contact us today at one of our Care Centers for comprehensive and quality care and treatment for acid reflux and all other types of GI disorders. Our team of board-certified gastroenterologists, pathologists, anesthesiologists, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants will assist in your care and provide you with the best possible treatment.