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More Than Heartburn: GERD

Monday, November 28, 2022

Are you one of the more than 60 million Americans that experience heartburn at least once a month? If you’ve never had heartburn, you’re among the lucky few. Heartburn is that irritating, burning sensation in your chest, typically after consuming a large meal or eating too quickly.

Heartburn is completely normal every once in a while. You take an antacid, and the pain usually resides. However, if you have more frequent heartburn that interferes with your day-to-day life, it may be a sign of something more serious.

Your frequent heartburn could actually be a sign of GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.

What is GERD?
“GERD is a chronic condition that develops when there is a reflux of stomach contents that cause troublesome symptoms,” said Dana Short, a family nurse practitioner at Family Care Center of Taylorsville.

GERD occurs when the cells in your esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach, become regularly irritated by your stomach acid.

According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, GERD is very common. It affects up to 1 in 5 or more adults in the United States. It can also occur in children.

You may be thinking GERD sounds similar to acid reflux, and you are correct.

“Acid reflux can be normal every now and then, usually due to dietary choices. When acid reflux causes bothersome symptoms or damage, it is called GERD,” said Short.

GERD is a more serious form of acid reflux, and it can cause some severe complications.

“Left untreated, GERD can cause complications such as ulcers or erosions and can possibly lead to cancer in the esophagus,” said Short.

Over time, GERD can cause the cells that are supposed to line the esophagus to be replaced with cells similar to those that line the small intestine. This condition is called Barrett’s esophagus. Once the cells in your esophagus have changed, you are at risk for cancer of the esophagus.

What are the symptoms of GERD?
“Symptoms of GERD include heartburn and regurgitation. Heartburn is a burning sensation in the area behind the sternum in your chest. It most commonly occurs after eating. Regurgitation is a flow of refluxed stomach contents into the mouth or throat. It can be mixed with small amounts of undigested food,” said Short.

While occasional heartburn is normal, it is considered to be troublesome or chronic if it occurs two or more days per week.

Though chronic heartburn and regurgitation are the most common symptoms of GERD, there are other signs as well. According to Short, symptoms of GERD include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic cough
  • Nausea
  • Painful swallowing
  • Water brash (occurs from the production of excessive amounts of saliva that mixes with stomach acid and has risen to the throat)

GERD can also occur in children, and they have slightly different symptoms. These include persistent vomiting, unexplained weight loss, difficulty or painful swallowing, and spitting up blood. If your child shows any of these symptoms, make sure to take them to their pediatrician or primary care provider.

If you are showing any signs of GERD, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider before complications occur. Your provider can diagnose GERD based on your symptoms. At times, GERD diagnosis may also require an endoscopy.

Who is at risk for GERD?
Anyone of any age can develop GERD, but some may be at increased risk.

According to Short, if you are overweight, pregnant, a smoker, or over the age of 50, you are more at risk for developing GERD.

How can GERD be treated?
To treat GERD symptoms, your provider may first recommend lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. According to Short, losing weight, if overweight, stopping smoking, changing your diet, avoiding tight clothing, refraining from late-night meals, and raising the head of your bed may help. You should also avoid foods that make symptoms worse, like coffee, chocolate, peppermint, fatty foods, spicy foods, and tomatoes.

“Medicines called antacids can be used for treatment as well. Examples include Tums, Maalox, and Mylanta. Histamine blockers such as PEPCID or Tagamet, and proton pump inhibitors such as Prilosec, Protonix, Prevacid, Dexliant, and Aciphex, can also help block or reduce acid in the stomach,” said Short.

If symptoms do not improve with lifestyle modifications, treating GERD may require prescription medications or surgery.

“You should visit your provider as soon as you start experiencing GERD symptoms, especially if they affect your quality of life,” said Short.

Your provider can help you determine a treatment plan that’s best for you.

Short practices at Family Care Center of Taylorsville, located at 1668 NC Hwy 16 South, and is accepting new patients. If you would like to schedule your next appointment with Dana Short, FNP-C, please call the office at 828-632-9736.