For most people, heartburn is just a minor irritation. We eat something that’s too spicy, we take an antacid, and we feel better.
Then there are people with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. This is a chronic form of heartburn that affects 19 million people. And if left untreated, GERD symptoms can lead to some more serious health complications.
In this week’s blog post, we’re going to look at why you shouldn’t ignore GERD symptoms.
GERD causes food, stomach acid and digestive fluids to flow back into the esophagus, causing irritation and swelling. This is known as esophagitis.
As Dr. Anish Sheth of the Yale School of Medicine tells Health.com, this condition is uncomfortable and painful, and can lead to scarring and erosion.
2. Esophageal stricture
If left untreated for too long, esophagitis can lead to esophageal stricture, a term for what happens when scar tissue causes the esophagus to become narrow. This can make it difficult for you to swallow, and can present a choking hazard.
3. Voice/throat problems
Although GERD is a digestive issue, it can impact other parts of your body. As Dr. Sheth put it in the Health article, some patients experience “silent reflux,” in which GERD symptoms present in ways other than classic heartburn. They might be hoarse, have a sore throat, or a chronic cough.
“They have this sensation that there’s a lump in their throat, or that they constantly have to clear their throat,” Sheth said.
4. Breathing trouble
If you inhale stomach acid during a GERD flare-up, it can exacerbate conditions such as asthma or pneumonia. GERD can also cause shortness of breath and make breathing difficult.
5. Tooth decay
If stomach acid makes its way into your mouth often enough, it can eat away at the enamel on your teeth and cause tooth decay. A study at the University of Alabama found that 40 percent of GERD patients had significant decay on their teeth.
Stomach acid can wear down the lining of your esophagus, leading to sores and ulcers. (These ulcers are different from the ones that form in your stomach due to bacteria.) People with esophageal ulcers might see blood in their stool, or vomit or spit up blood. If this happens, see a doctor right away.
7. Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer
This is a condition that results when persistent, untreated acid reflux causes precancerous changes in the esophageal cells. A small number of people with Barrett’s esophagus can develop esophageal cancer, which is often fatal.
Symptoms of this cancer include weight loss, difficulty swallowing and gastrointestinal bleeding. Again, from Yale’s Dr. Sheth:
“It’s something that happens over decades of reflux damage, so for someone who’s 30 and otherwise healthy, we probably won’t consider cancer. But if you’re over 50 and you’ve had heartburn for many years and you’re suddenly losing weight, for example, it’s definitely something we want to test for.”
8. Reduced quality of life
Beyond these health concerns, GERD symptoms can make us less happy. A study conducted in Germany in 2003 looked at 6,000 GERD patients and found most of them felt their quality of life was diminished because they couldn’t eat, drink, sleep and socialize the way they wanted.
Their quality of life was similar to heart-attack patients. In some cases, patients with GERD symptoms were even less happy than people with diabetes and cancer.
How do I prevent GERD?
One way to prevent GERD is to make lifestyle changes that improve your digestive health: get more exercise, eat smaller meals, and avoid fatty foods and alcohol.
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