What Is Acid Reflux?
It’s estimated that between 20 to 30 percent of Americans experience acid reflux at least once per week. Acid reflux is a persistent type of heartburn, where it feels like there is a burning sensation in your chest. Acid reflux can also feel like pain in the lower chest area. When stomach acid does not stay in the stomach and flows back into the esophagus and throat, this will cause heartburn. The terms “acid reflux” and “heartburn” are interchangeable, and you may often hear acid reflux referred to as indigestion or pyrosis. When acid reflux occurs at least two times per week, this is classified as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can be more painful and affect quality of life. Based upon their severity, less frequent symptoms can be designated as GERD.
Does Acid Reflux Need Medical Attention?
You likely don’t need medical attention if you only experience acid reflux symptoms occasionally. Many temporary underlying causes can cause you to have heartburn. Some of these include smoking (or inhaling secondhand smoke), eating greasy, spicy, or fatty foods, pressure on your abdomen (such as during pregnancy), caffeinated and alcoholic beverages, and certain types of medications. If you experience heartburn or other symptoms of GERD like regurgitation, belching, chest discomfort after eating, twice or more per week, you should let your physician know in order to rule out other problems.
How Can I Treat Mild Cases of Acid Reflux?
If you only occasionally experience acid reflux, you can treat it at home with over-the-counter medications or with home remedies. Antacids, like the chewable ones, provide more immediate, but short-term relief when the contents of the stomach are too acidic. Omeprazole, rabeprazole, and esomeprazole are in a class of medications known as proton pump inhibitors. These types of medications don’t usually work instantly, but they can relieve symptoms of acid reflux.
You may also want to check in with your physician if you’re experiencing acid reflux too often. If you have more than two cases of heartburn a week, it may be a sign of GERD. While GERD may feel simply like more intense heartburn, it heightens your risk for many other problems if left untreated, such as Barrett’s esophagus or esophageal cancer.
Acid Reflux vs. GERD
The terms “GERD” and “acid reflux” are often used interchangeably, but it’s important to understand the difference between the two. Acid reflux, or heartburn, is an occasional, uncomfortable condition that usually has a clear reason behind it, such as spicy food or pregnancy, It’s unwise to treat symptoms of GERD with over-the-counter products, as you may be covering up a different problem. This is when you should consult with your gastroenterologist.
Risk Factors for Acid Reflux
Heartburn is uncomfortable, and of course, anyone, even those with occasional cases of it, would like to avoid it as it affects quality of life. What are some of the risk factors for acid reflux?
- Lying down after eating. If you take a nap immediately after eating, this increases your chances of experiencing heartburn, because it makes it more likely for stomach acid to escape into the esophagus in that position.
- Eating too close to bedtime. While eating within a few hours of bedtime is frowned upon when it comes to diet, it can also contribute to heartburn. This is also because lying down can cause stomach acid to creep into the esophagus.
- Stress. Having too much stress in your life can cause heartburn. While it may be hard to eliminate sources of stress, try to reduce them as much as possible.
- Lifestyle habits. If you smoke cigarettes, drink more than the occasional cocktail, or eat a lot of greasy food, you’re much more likely to have heartburn.
- Acidic foods. If you have a predisposition to heartburn, reducing consumption of foods such as tomatoes, tomato sauce, citrus fruits, and citric juices (like orange juice) can help.
What Are the Medical Treatments for Acid Reflux?
Your doctor may prescribe treatments in lieu of over-the-counter treatments, particularly if they aren’t easing your symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe prescription-strength proton pump inhibitors, which are generally the most effective agents to treat and control GERD. There are also histamine blockers, known as H2 blockers. Both proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and H2 blockers decrease acid production in the stomach, so that acid has less of a chance to escape into the esophagus. Gaviscon, which is alginic acid, is also often used as acid reflux therapy.
What if I Suspect Acid Reflux Is GERD?
With GERD, you can have more symptoms than heartburn, and these episodes tend to occur twice or more per week. With GERD, symptoms include a dry, wheezing cough, nausea and vomiting, problems in the throat, back pain, bad breath, dental problems (from all of the acid escaping the esophagus) and chest or abdominal pain. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms along with more-than-occasional acid reflux, it’s time to make an appointment with your physician. If left untreated, GERD can cause Esophagitis (inflamed lining of the esophagus), which can lead to damage and other problems like ulcers, strictures (scar tissue narrowing in the esophagus), and Barrett’s esophagus, which can lead to esophageal cancer.