Is it heartburn, acid reflux or something more?

November 23, 2016 | by Alexander Hantel, M.D.

Each one of us experiences heartburn at some point in our lives. Symptoms differ from person to person, but those who have felt heartburn most likely feel a burning sensation in the chest, usually after eating a meal.

Mild heartburn is quite common and can usually be relieved with antacids. Some find it helps to avoid spicy or acid foods. But if your heartburn symptoms become more frequent or don’t go away, it could be acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

GERD is chronic acid reflux, or acid reflux that occurs more than two times a week. GERD occurs when a muscle at the end of your esophagus does not close properly, which causes stomach contents to leak back (or reflux) into the esophagus, irritating it.

Symptoms of GERD include:

  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • Belching
  • Sudden excess of saliva
  • Sensation of food sticking in the esophagus
  • Chronic sore throat, laryngitis, or chronic irritation in the throat
  • Inflammation of the gums, erosion of the enamel of the teeth
  • Hoarseness in the morning
  • A sour taste or bad breath

If symptoms of GERD continue for longer than 10 years, it can change the lining of your esophagus, causing you to develop Barrett’s esophagus, a pre-cancerous condition in which the normal tissue lining of the esophagus has been replaced by abnormal tissue lining.

Barrett’s esophagus is often a result of long-term GERD symptoms. The longer someone has reflux, the more likely they are to develop Barrett’s esophagus.

Though the risk is small, Barrett’s esophagus can increase your risk of developing a type of cancer in the esophagus called esophageal adenocarcinoma. The risk is higher if dysplasia is present, if you have a family history of Barrett’s, and if you smoke or drink heavily.

You can prevent Barrett’s esophagus by controlling your acid reflux through:

  • Losing weight
  • Not lying down after eating
  • Sleeping propped up so your head and chest are above your stomach
  • Taking an antacid
  • Quitting smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Only drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables

Talk to your doctor if you have regular symptoms of heartburn. Living a healthy lifestyle can play a major role in reducing your risk and avoiding health problems associated with acid reflux.

How do you live a healthy lifestyle? Tell us in the below comments.

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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