Acid reflux affects millions of Americans. Learn when to worry and what you can do to stop it.
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.
What can I do about acid reflux?
There are multiple natural remedies and simple lifestyle changes people can make to reduce acid reflux. Here is a list of many creative solutions. Over-the-counter antacids can help quickly reduce symptoms for people with occasional heartburn. For people with recurrent acid reflux, medications including proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) and H2 receptor antagonists may help reduce stomach acid production and ease symptoms. Surgery may also provide an effective solution for people with severe reflux. Lifestyle changes are important for anyone with acid reflux or heartburn, regardless of severity.
Some high-risk people with GERD may need to undergo screening with an endoscopy for Barrett's esophagus and patients with Barrett's esophagus may require screening for esophageal cancer.
When to be worried
If you experience heartburn regularly or your symptoms are worsening or no longer responding to over-the-counter medications, be sure to consult your doctor. Also, if you have pain or difficulty with swallowing, unintentional weight loss, vomiting, chest pain, trouble breathing or shortness of breath, extreme abdominal pain or black or bloody bowel movements, seek medical attention right away.