Everyone experiences an occasional bout of heartburn or regurgitation after a particularly heavy or fatty meal. But for many people, acid reflux is an all-too-common occurrence—and many don’t even realize that’s what’s happening.
“Acid reflux can be a misdiagnosed and is an under-diagnosed problem,” said John Hyatt, MD, a gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Waxahachie. “Many people have acid reflux problems, but they don’t seek care from a physician. Instead, they treat themselves with over-the-counter medication.”
You may not always recognize the symptoms of acid reflux. One of Dr. Hyatt’s patients, for example, kept going to a cardiologist, complaining of chest pain. Ultimately, he discovered the discomfort didn’t have anything to do with his heart—it was a symptom of acid reflux.
Signs you have acid reflux
So, what is acid reflux and why does it happen? Acid reflux happens when acid in your stomach flows up into the esophagus.
Heartburn or regurgitation are the two most common signs of acid reflux. Other symptoms include:
- Chronic hoarseness
- Chronic cough
What to do if you have acid reflux
Dr. Hyatt says acid reflux can be treated by making dietary changes or taking pills for the reflux. For example, spicy foods, drinking too many acidic beverages (such as orange or grapefruit juice), or eating a heavy meal before bedtime could cause acid reflux.
He also encourages people to “eat moderately.”
“It may not be the food you eat, but the quantity of what you eat,” Dr. Hyatt said. “Instead of having three cups of coffee, have one. Have a beer, but not four. Don’t get that second serving of lasagna.”
Long-term acid reflux usually isn’t life-threatening, but a small percentage of people can develop pre-cancerous symptoms in the esophagus. Another small percentage of people can develop complications with esophagus scarring, making it difficult for them to swallow their food.
If you feel like you’re experiencing symptoms of acid reflux, here are Dr. Hyatt’s recommendations for what you can do to feel better:
1. Examine your diet
Are you eating a lot of spicy or acidic food? Do you drink too much caffeine or acidic beverages? See how you feel if you cut back or eliminate certain foods or drinks.
2. Try non-prescription medication and over-the-counter remedies
If diet and lifestyle changes don’t help, try using over-the-counter (OTC) medications to alleviate your symptoms. There are three kinds of OTC medications to treat heartburn and acid reflux:
- Antacids: Antacids treat indigestion by changing the stomach acid that causes heartburn.
- Histamine-2 (H2) blockers: H2 blockers reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes.
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): OTC proton pump inhibitors reduce the amount of acid produced by the stomach. They are intended to treat frequent heartburn (two or more days a week) and are not recommended for immediate relief because they may take up to four days for full effect. In contrast, prescription PPIs treat conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), stomach and small intestine ulcers, and inflammation of the esophagus.
Acid reducers may interact with certain other medicines, so ask your doctor or pharmacist before use if you are taking a prescription drug. They are only intended for a 14-day course of treatment and can be used up to three times per year.
3. Talk to your doctor
Although acid reflux is extremely common and rarely serious, don’t ignore your acid reflux symptoms. Always consult your primary care physician or digestive specialist to talk about your symptoms.