The terms heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD are often confused and used interchangeably, but they have very different meanings.
Heartburn is a symptom of both GERD and acid reflux. Acid reflux is a common medical condition, whereas GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is a chronic and more severe form of reflux. If you have symptoms of acid reflux more than twice a week, then you likely have GERD.
GERD is caused by a malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This muscular band at the end of your esophagus closes to prevent stomach acid from flowing backward, but it opens again when you swallow.
When the digestive fluids are allowed to flow back through into your esophagus, the delicate lining of your throat is irritated and becomes inflamed, causing GERD symptoms. Because of the close proximity of your esophagus and windpipe, both digestive and respiratory symptoms can be present.
There are certain risk factors that can increase your risk of developing GERD.
♦ Being overweight
♦ Hiatal hernia
♦ Eating large meals
♦ Connective tissues disorders
The symptoms of GERD can disrupt your life, and if left untreated they can develop into more serious complications. The main symptoms of GERD include:
♦ Bad breath
♦ Chest pain
♦ Trouble swallowing
♦ Persistent dry cough
♦ Damage to tooth enamel from excess acid
In rare cases, GERD can become more severe, especially if treatment was never sought. In these instances, you become at risk for more serious and life-threatening health conditions such as:
♦ Esophagitis: The inflammation of your esophagus
♦ Barrett’s esophagus: When permanent changes to the lining of your esophagus occur
♦ Esophageal cancer: This develops after Barrett’s esophagus.
♦ Asthma: Chronic coughing and other breathing problems can occur if stomach acid enters your lungs.
Your doctor may be able to diagnose GERD by conducting a physical examination and discussing your symptoms. Additional testing may be required to confirm the diagnosis.
♦ Endoscopy: A small tube is inserted down your throat to examine your esophagus and stomach.
♦ Acid probe test: A monitor is placed in your esophagus to identify how long stomach acid is there when you experience reflux.
♦ X-ray of your digestive system: After drinking a chalky liquid that coats your digestive tract, an x-ray is taken to identify any narrowing of the esophagus.
♦ Esophageal manometry: Using rhythmic muscle contractions in the esophagus, this test measures the force exerted by your esophagus when you swallow.
Your doctor will recommend lifestyle and diet changes to treat GERD, and in addition to this, there are medications you can try. Over-the-counter antacids can help to neutralize stomach acid, but they will not heal damage already caused by the acid. Proton pump inhibitors are also used to decrease stomach acid production, and stronger versions are available by prescription. You can also try H-2 blockers, which work to block acid production and allow time for your esophagus to heal.
What you eat significantly impacts your stomach and your levels of acid reflux. As a result, there are certain foods you should eat and those you should avoid.
♦ What to eat: fresh fruits and vegetables, decaffeinated drinks, water, frozen yogurt, skimmed or low-fat milk, low-fat meats, and meat substitutes.
♦ What not to eat: Citrus fruits, creamy soups, coffee, alcohol, carbonated beverages, high-fat desserts, fried vegetables, whole milk, fried or processed meats, animal or vegetable fats.
The sensation of burning acid in your throat is not comfortable, and if medications are not working, there are natural remedies you can try at home to relieve discomfort.
♦ Baking soda: One teaspoon neutralizes stomach acid, which means if it rises through your esophagus, you will not feel the burn.
♦ Chew gum: Chewing gum for thirty minutes stimulates your salivary glands, and more saliva is produced, which washes away excess acid.
♦ Ginger tea: Ginger has long been used to treat digestive disorders from nausea to acid reflux. Drinking ginger as a tea can help to soothe symptoms of GERD.
♦ Mustard: Mustard contains vinegar, which is alkaline and neutralizes any acid that comes up through your esophagus.
In addition to trying these natural treatment options, there are also things you should avoid if you have GERD. Do not lie down after eating, avoid alcohol and smoking, and stay away from fatty or high-sugar foods as well as spicy foods.
Your symptoms will also improve if you lose weight and exercise regularly.
Lifestyle changes and medications are usually enough to treat GERD and reduce symptoms. In some rare cases, surgery may be required, especially if lifestyle changes and medications have not helped relieve symptoms.
If you have developed any complications, your doctor may also recommend surgery. The common procedures performed are:
♦ LINX device: A ring of magnetic beads is placed at the junction of your stomach and esophagus. These beads keep the sphincter closed, preventing acid from flowing back through the esophagus. They are weak enough to allow food to pass when swallowing.
♦ Fundoplication: The top of your stomach is wrapped around your LES, which tightens the muscle and prevents reflux. This is a minimally invasive surgery, and the wrapping of the stomach can be partial or complete.
There are no true variations for GERD, but certain factors are commonly seen along with GERD and can aggravate or trigger symptoms.
♦ Anxiety and GERD: Anxiety causes stress, which causes inflammation and an upset stomach. As a result, stomach acid is more likely to reflux back into your esophagus.
♦ Pregnancy and GERD: Hormonal changes impact your esophagus muscles, causing them to relax more frequently. This allows easier access for stomach acid. The additional pressure of the fetus also increases your risk for acid flowing back through the LES.
♦ Asthma and GERD: The two conditions are strongly linked, and GERD can make the symptoms of your asthma worse. In addition to this, asthma medications can trigger GERD symptoms, so it is important to manage both.
♦ 15 to 30 percent of the population has GERD.
♦ Hospitalizations from GERD have increased by 62 percent.
♦ Obesity and being overweight significantly increases your risk of developing GERD.
♦ An average of $5.6 billion is spent annually on antacid medications.
♦ 75 percent of people with asthma also experience GERD.
GERD can occur in both babies and children. Babies will typically grow out of acid reflux by the age of one, but GERD can appear later in childhood. The symptoms in children and babies are frequent vomiting, persistent coughing, refusing to eat or difficulty eating, regurgitation, and complaining of a sour taste in their mouth.
GERD in children is diagnosed in a similar manner as adults, and immediate treatment is important to prevent permanent esophagus damage.
With regular use of medications, lifestyle changes, and dietary changes, living with GERD is possible. Serious complications only arise when treatment plans are not followed, and symptoms are allowed to worsen.
By working closely with your doctor and following all recommendations for medications and diet changes, you can live with GERD comfortably and even get rid of symptoms completely.