WHAT IS GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic condition that occurs when gastric juice, bile or stomach acid reflux from the stomach up into the esophagus. This causes irritation of the lining of the esophagus which causes the symptoms that you feel. There is a sphincter (group of muscles) at the bottom of the esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter) that normally prevents the reflux of fluid back into the esophagus. Sometimes that sphincter is very loose (hiatal hernia) and sometimes it just occasionally relaxes (transient relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter). Either of these conditions can allow gastric contents to make their way into the esophagus. If left untreated long term, reflux can cause esophagitis (ulcers or acid burn) strictures (bands of scar tissue) Barrett’s esophagus (a precancerous change to the lining of the esophagus) and esophageal cancer.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SYMPTOMS OF GERD?
The symptoms of GERD very widely from patient to patient and some patients that have it are asymptomatic. The most common symptoms of GERD are:
- burning in the chest
- chest pain
- swallowing problems (dysphagia)
- irritation in back of throat or dry cough
- sour taste in mouth
- sensation of lump in throat
WHEN SHOULD I SEE A PHYSICIAN IF I HAVE GERD?
Most patients experience esophageal reflux at some point in their life. If it is just a few symptoms that come and go and are easily controlled with diet changes or over-the-counter medications, it is unlikely that you need to seek medical care. Things that can make reflux worse are alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and obesity. If your symptoms persist longer than a couple of weeks or do not improve with over-the-counter medications, then I recommend evaluation by a physician. It is also best to be evaluated if you experience any swallowing problems, bleeding, weight loss or loss of appetite with your reflux symptoms. Patients who are overweight, who smoke or drink excessive alcohol are also at increased risk for long-term damage from reflux and should be evaluated by a physician. The main thing I worry about in my patients with long-term reflux is the progression to Barrett’s esophagus or esophageal cancer. The best way to prevent that from happening is to be evaluated by a physician and get your acid reflux under tighter control.