More than 60 million Americans experience heartburn — that uncomfortable feeling of burning in your chest — at least once a month.
Many won’t give it a second thought. But did you know that while infrequent heartburn can be treated with medications and lifestyle changes, chronic acid reflux — when stomach acid splashes up and out of the stomach, irritating the esophagus — can have more serious, long-term health effects?
“The terms heartburn, acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, are often used interchangeably, but they have quite different meanings,” explains Dr. Ali Banaie, a board-certified gastroenterologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Heartburn is a common symptom of acid reflux and may not be serious. But GERD is a chronic and more severe acid reflux that may lead to further complications.”
Know the difference
According to Dr. Banaie, the most common symptoms of acid reflux include:
- chest pain
- regurgitation (throwing up)
- dry cough
- trouble swallowing
- stomach discomfort
These symptoms most often occur after eating a heavy meal, when bending over or lifting objects, or while lying down on your back. Certain foods can also make acid reflux symptoms worse.
You should consult your doctor if you have the following symptoms, which could indicate a more severe condition, such as GERD:
- Heartburn two or more times a week with no relief from over-the-counter medications
- Wheezing, dry cough, hoarseness, difficulty or pain with swallowing, persistent hiccups, or nausea that lasts weeks or months
- Unexpected weight loss; blood in vomit; black, unusually colored stools; or pain with swallowing
If GERD is left untreated, acid from the stomach can cause the cells of the esophagus to change, leading to a condition called Barrett's esophagus. Patients with Barrett's esophagus have an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer.
If you have mild periodic acid reflux, Dr. Banaie suggests limiting “trigger” (fatty, spicy, or acidic) foods, quitting smoking, and losing weight to help provide relief. Medications available at your local drugstore, such as antacids, H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors can be taken to help relieve the symptoms.
If you are concerned about frequent heartburn, or if you experience the symptoms listed above, talk with your doctor.