Acid Reflux Fact Sheet

Acid reflux affects millions of Americans. Learn when to worry and what you can do to stop it.

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More than 60 million Americans report having acid reflux at least once a month, so many are familiar with the unpleasant symptoms this condition can cause. Heartburn, a sour or bitter taste in the back of the throat, trouble swallowing, hoarseness, chronic cough and even regurgitation of food or liquid are all frequent features of acid reflux, and even more serious consequences can develop over time. Make sure you know how and why to protect yourself from these uncomfortable and potentially dangerous symptoms with this fact sheet.

What is acid reflux?

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid rises up into the esophagus, sometimes reaching all the way to the throat or mouth. While many people may experience occasional acid reflux, gastreoesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a common, more serious condition in which acid reflux is frequent and chronic.

Over time, approximately 5-10% of people with GERD may develop a condition called Barrett's esophagus, in which the cells lining the esophagus become damaged and morph into cells more commonly seen in the intestines – raising the risk of esophageal cancer. This condition may develop even with "silent" reflux that causes no symptoms. Long term acid reflux may also cause narrowing of the esophagus or esophageal ulcers.  

What causes it?

Each time you swallow, a sphincter in the lower part of your esophagus relaxes to allow food or liquid to pass through to the stomach. If this sphincter relaxes too much or too often or if it has become weak, it can allow stomach contents to back up into the esophagus. The sensation of heartburn is due to the irritation that the acid generates in the esophageal lining.

There are many triggers that can worsen heartburn, including spicy food, alcohol, chocolate, peppermint, tomatoes, garlic and citrus foods. Large meals, too-tight pants and lying down or bending over within three hours after eating can also make symptoms worse. Obesity and smoking have also been linked to acid reflux and symptoms can substantially improve after weight loss and smoking cessation. Unfortunately, people with GERD often experience acid reflux independent of food and lifestyle factors.