When you hear the words “acid reflux,” you think of horrible heartburn—that intense, burning feeling in your chest that you get occasionally. But you don’t experience heartburn often enough to be overly concerned. After all, everyone experiences a little heartburn after Thanksgiving dinner, and especially when Aunt Mary brings her green bean casserole.
What most people don’t realize is that while everyone experiences noticeable symptoms of acid reflux from time to time—like heartburn, for instance—there can be more subtle signs of acid reflux, a condition also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Below, you’ll learn more about acid reflux and its symptoms. Learn what to do if you suspect that you suffer from this condition and how to seek diagnosis and treatment.
What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is caused by stomach acid that rises and overflows into your food pipe (esophagus). The acid irritates and burns away the esophagus’ lining, which causes a burning sensation behind the breastbone. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, 60 million Americans suffer from this pain at least monthly.
Simply put, you have acid reflux if you suffer heartburn more than twice a week. Acid reflux is a chronic digestive disease and requires medical attention and treatment; in fact, hospitalizations related to the disease are rising.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is linked to obesity, anemia, and other esophageal disorders. Persistent reflux can result in esophagitis and strictures, and older adults—usually around age 50—who have GERD may develop something called Barrett’s esophagus.
Barrett’s esophagus is not a diagnosis you want to receive. It is caused by untreated acid reflux, and its results can be devastating: physicians believe it to be a precursor to cancer.
Symptoms of Acid Reflux
Post-meal heartburn is the most obvious—and least easily ignored—symptom of acid reflux. But there are more subtle signs, and many people who should be diagnosed with GERD aren’t even aware that they have it.
- Persistent coughing and wheezing
- Vomiting and nausea
- Difficulty swallowing (some patients describe the feeling as swallowing a golf ball, particularly in the morning)
- Chest pain
- Worsened pain after resting
- A sore or hoarse throat
- Bad breath, a bitter taste in the mouth, and increased dental problems (results of the acid lingering in your esophagus)
Some people begin to lose their voices more frequently, and singers’ voices sometimes break. Because the symptoms of acid reflux are easily dismissed or assumed to be related to something else, this disease can go undetected for years.
If you suspect you have acid reflux, contact your physician as soon as possible. You may need to speak with a gastroenterologist—a specialist in esophageal disorders and health.
Your gastroenterologist may suggest an endoscopy. In this procedure, the gastroenterologist will examine your digestive tract using a flexible tube with a camera and light attached to it. The camera will stream footage to a monitor, so your physician can check for signs of acid burns along your digestive tract and esophagus.
Although you will most likely be sedated during the procedure, an endoscopy isn’t a surgery, which means you won’t have a lengthy recovery period.
Treatment & Recovery
If you are diagnosed with acid reflux, your gastroenterologist will help you develop a personalized treatment plan. Many of the symptoms are easily treated by making simple lifestyle changes. For example:
- Alter Your Diet. The food you eat has a major impact on your gastroesophageal health. Your physician will most likely order a diet that is low in sodium (avoiding table salt especially), high in iron, and high in fiber. Avoid fatty, greasy foods that increase your likelihood for obesity and eat smaller meals. Your physician may ask you to keep a food diary so it will be easier to discover links between symptoms and eating habits.
- Exercise. Maintaining a healthy body weight (and losing weight, if you need to) will help your body process stomach acids more readily. Exercising frequently will also help you manage stress. Your doctor will remind you to not lie down immediately after a meal—lying down will allow your stomach acids to slide into your esophagus.
- Sleep with an Extra Pillow. It sounds almost too simple, but sleeping with another pillow (or raising the top of your mattress) will stop acid or stomach contents from spilling into your food pipe.
- Stop smoking. Smoking irritates and damages your esophagus, which, if already sustaining acid burns from GERD, can become even more inflamed and sore.
If these lifestyle changes do not appear to improve your acid reflux symptoms, your doctor may prescribe an over-the-counter remedy or medication, like an antacid. Antacids—which buffer the acidity of stomach contents—offer relief from heartburn and other acid reflux-related symptoms.
In very rare cases, GERD needs to be treated with a surgery called fundoplication. Your physician will diagnose the severity of your GERD and discuss this option with you only if your case is extreme.
Act Now to Avoid Serious Repercussions
Remember to monitor your symptoms and consider your overall health. If you are concerned that you may be suffering from acid reflux, contact your physician immediately. Symptoms can be irritating, uncomfortable, and painful, and untreated GERD is dangerous, so seek relief today.