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Acid reflux disease, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a chronic digestive disease that affects nearly 20 percent of Americans, including children and adults.
A painful disease in which stomach acid flows backwards into the esophagus, GERD causes irritation and other negative side effects. Acid reflux disease can eventually lead to esophageal cancer if left untreated, so it is important to understand the symptoms and when to seek treatment.
The stomach produces harsh acids after a meal that help with the digestion of food. In a healthy person, a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter prevents the acid from backing up into the esophagus in a movement called reflux. In people with acid reflux disease, this muscle does not function properly, and the acid backs up, or refluxes, into the esophagus.
The stomach lining is tough and it’s made to handle acid, but the esophagus is not. It has much more delicate lining and doesn’t repair itself as well. As a result, refluxed acid can lead to burns, which are painful and can make people feel nauseated or make like they have to belch frequently. Other symptoms of acid reflux include heartburn, regurgitation of bitter acid into the throat, bitter taste in mouth, dry cough, hoarseness, feeling of tightness in the throat, and wheezing.
There are many factors that can contribute to acid reflux, including:
Tests to diagnose acid reflux disease include X-rays of the esophagus, stomach and upper part of the intestine, gastrointestinal endoscopy, esophageal manometry, and a 24-hour pH probe study, a test where a thin probe or tube is placed in the esophagus. A gastroenterologist will perform any number of these tests to determine if symptoms are being caused by acid reflux or another health issue.
Prolonged acid reflux disease can cause long-term damage, including a precancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus, where normal tissue lining the esophagus changes to tissue that resembles the lining of the intestine. Those who have suffered from acid reflux for five years or longer may require additional testing to see if they are at risk for Barrett’s esophagus.
There are a variety of ways to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of acid reflux. In some cases, patients may receive a prescription for acid-blocking medication, which helps stop the acid-producing cells in the stomach. That way, when stomach fluids come back up, they include less acid, and don’t irritate the tissue.
Acid reflux can sometimes be prevented by changing the habits that may cause reflux. This includes avoiding alcohol and smoking, limiting fatty foods and other food triggers, maintaining a healthy body weight, and avoiding large meals within three hours of bedtime.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of One Health magazine. For more stories like this one and additional health and wellness information, subscribe today.
Dr. Kathleen Martin is a gastroenterologist with KentuckyOne Health Gastroenterology Associates.