More than 30 million Americans suffer from acid reflux monthly. According to a national study that followed more than 30,000 people for 11 years, symptoms of reflux and heartburn have nearly doubled in the last decade. It is important to be aware of the health risks associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition often caused by frequent acid reflux.
GERD occurs when stomach contents, including acid or bile, wash back into the esophagus. Over time, this acid erodes the lining of the esophagus, resulting in discomfort, or in some cases, serious complications. Here’s what you need to know about the symptoms and causes of GERD, its associated health risks and treatment options.
What are the causes and symptoms of GERD?
GERD can affect people at any age, but the risk for developing GERD increases after age 40. GERD is caused by a weak lower esophageal sphincter (LES) that does not adequately prevent stomach acid from escaping the stomach and flowing back into the esophagus. GERD also can be related to a hiatal hernia, which can allow stomach acid or undigested food to wash back into the esophagus after a meal.
GERD should only be diagnosed by a physician and may require further testing to be confirmed. The following symptoms may be indicators to visit your physician:
- You experience heartburn twice or more each week.
- Your heartburn affects your sleeping.
- Your heartburn persists or becomes more severe.
- You’ve had heartburn regularly for several years.
- Daily activities are affected by discomfort from reflux.
- You experience difficulty swallowing.
- You notice shortness of breath, wheezing and chest pain.
- You experience a chronic, non-productive dry cough.
Health risks associated with GERD
Beyond discomfort in daily activities such as exercising, eating, and sleeping, GERD can result in additional complications. Over time, stomach acid can cause esophagitis, a painful inflammation of the esophagus. Left untreated, esophagitis can result in esophageal bleeding, scarring, or ulcers.
An additional condition called Barrett’s esophagus affects about 1 percent of GERD patients. Barrett’s esophagus occurs when cells in the lower esophagus become damaged and change color and composition. This increases the risk of developing esophageal cancer. Since 1970, the diagnosis of esophageal cancer has increased by 600 percent, and it is the seventh leading cause of cancer death for men. People with Barrett’s esophagus are encouraged to be screened regularly for cancer because many symptoms do not appear until the cancer is advanced.
Treatment options for GERD
Treating GERD requires a long-term commitment to improving lifestyle choices and may require physician-recommended treatments to control or reduce painful symptoms.
Worried about your GERD symptoms? Get treatment today.