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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease: What Everyone Should Know About GERD

What is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)?

GERD happens when acidic stomach contents escape and enter the esophagus (food pipe). Most of us experience occasional GERD and this is normal. However, over 20% of the US population experiences persistent GERD symptoms requiring attention.

What are the symptoms of GERD?

The most common symptom is a burning in your chest or upper abdomen. This is often short lived and not accompanied by shortness of breath or sweating.

You may also have an acidic taste in your mouth or regurgitate food into your mouth after eating.

Other symptoms include: difficulty swallowing, vomiting, dry cough, hoarse voice, repetitive throat clearing, chest pain, dental decay and more.

GERD symptoms infographic

What is the big deal if I have GERD?

The stomach makes highly acidic juices to help with digestion. The lining of the esophagus is brittle. Therefore, repetitive exposure of your esophagus lining to acidic stomach contents can lead to short term and long-term injury to your food pipe. This can result in burn injury and ESOPHAGUS CANCER! Sometimes acid can even escape your esophagus and result in pneumonia, asthma, sinus problems and decay of your teeth.

This is not to mention that heartburn symptoms can make one feel miserable and affect quality of life.

How is GERD treated?

Occasional heartburn should be managed with these lifestyle changes:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Decreasing alcohol intake
  • Weight loss (particularly around your belly)
  • Wearing clothing that is not tight around your waist
  • Minimizing spicy or greasy foods, chocolate, caffeine and peppermint
  • Not eating close to bedtime
  • Avoid lying down immediately after eating

More frequent symptoms are managed with prescription or over the counter anti-acid medication. These medications either counteract the acid made in your stomach or reduce its production all together.

There are three types of GERD medications.

  1. Antacids (Tums, Maalox)
  2. Histamine blockers (Zantac, Pepcid)
  3. Proton Pump inhibitors (Nexium, omeprazole)

Short term use of any of these medications is acceptable. If you are using this medication beyond two to three weeks, see your medical doctor for evaluation.

Colourful antacid tablets against a white background.

If I have chest pain, should I take GERD medication?

Symptoms of GERD may overlap with other disorders such as diseases of your heart and lungs. You should always consult with your medical doctor to determine if heart and lung testing is required. Do not assume that all chest burning is GERD!

Why is it important not to ignore or “just live with” GERD?

Symptoms that do not improve with the above changes can sometimes be warning signs of something serious:

  • The symptoms may not be GERD at all and symptoms may be coming from an entirely different disorder.
  • There could be a narrowing in your throat (stricture), which may cause difficulty swallowing.
  • You could also develop precancerous changes in the esophagus called Barrett’s esophagus.

When to call a doctor?

If making simple lifestyle changes and trying over the counter medications do not put an end to your symptoms within two weeks, you should contact your doctor. If you have “alarm” symptoms such as unintentional weight loss, a family history of esophagus cancer, vomiting blood or anemia – see your doctor immediately. If you have been experiencing GERD like symptoms for over 1 year – see your doctor. Learn more about WakeMed gastroenterology.