Eating, sleeping, and breathing are natural parts of life, and all can be affected by GERD. GERD Awareness week is November 18-24, just in time for Thanksgiving—a holiday that includes a lot of eating. Understanding this disease and how it affects your normal routine could save you a lot of discomfort this holiday season. Raise your awareness and lower your stomach acid.
Most people have experienced heartburn at one point in their life—that burning sensation in the middle of the chest that usually occurs after eating. For some, that discomfort is a regular part of life and at times causes serious pain. These people suffer from GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease. GERD is a condition where stomach acid regularly flows up into the esophagus and throat. This recurring flow can cause tissue damage in the esophagus and/or wearing away of the sphincter muscle that keeps food in the stomach. The result is frequent heartburn sometimes accompanied by other problems like nausea, regurgitation, bad breath, and bitter taste in the mouth.
GERD is aggravated by certain foods—typically spicy or citric food, caffeine, peppermint, and chocolate—lying down after eating, and overeating. Other reasons GERD occurs is because of excess weight putting increasing pressure on the abdomen—either from obesity or pregnancy—smoking, and certain medications. Untreated GERD is dangerous because over time acid in the esophagus can start to erode the lining making it difficult to swallow and more susceptible to cancer. It is not as common, but when acid is traveling back into the chest it is possible to breathe it into the lungs, which can lead to asthma or pneumonia.
The first treatment option for GERD is usually medication to decrease the amount of acid in the stomach. Although the medications are commonly available over the counter, use beyond a couple of weeks should be monitored by a doctor. There are other medications your doctor may prescribe to counteract stomach acid or help the stomach empty faster. If diet changes and medicine don’t prove effective, your doctor may recommend further testing.
Acid reflux is another term that refers to stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus, so a short definition of GERD is chronic acid reflux. However, there is another type of reflux that involves the same event but presents very different symptoms. Instead of heartburn, upset stomach, and belching, silent reflux causes allergy-type symptoms like cough and mucus build-up. In the case of silent reflux, the acid in the esophagus irritates the throat and causes post-nasal drip. Someone with silent reflux will often feel hoarse or like there is a lump in the throat. Unlike allergies, silent reflux does not cause sneezing or itchy eyes. Mucus appears thick instead of thinner and clear, and it won’t respond to cold or allergy medicine.
It is important to identify silent reflux because, because like the more obvious heartburn, it can lead to serious illnesses like sleep apnea, asthma, and like GERD, it can lead to esophageal cancer. A good way to tell if your symptoms are related to silent reflux is to try eliminating reflux-causing foods from your diet for two weeks and see if symptoms subside. If you continue to experience silent reflux symptoms, or if you suspect you may have GERD, visit one of our gastroenterologists at Carolina Digestive Health Associates today. You can book an appointment online at one of our eight convenient locations.