Acid reflux disease, also known as GERD, causes a burning pain or heartburn in the chest area. Acid reflux occurs because stomach acid flows up the esophagus.
What is GERD?
When you eat, food travels down your food pipe (the esophagus) into your stomach. Typically, a muscle between the esophagus and stomach—the sphincter—prevents food from returning up through the esophagus.
When the sphincter is not able to completely close, stomach acid can flow upward into your esophagus. This can result in a burning sensation (heartburn) in your upper abdomen or chest, along with chest pain or irritation in your throat.
These are symptoms of acid reflux. When someone has these symptoms more than twice a week, it's known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It's very common. And mostly just uncomfortable.
Changing what you eat is the easiest way to stop symptoms. Some people with GERD also take medication to lower the amount of stomach acid.
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What are the symptoms of GERD in adults?
Most people with acid reflux get it under control. And may even stop taking acid suppression medication. Lifestyle changes—not eating within 3 hours of bedtime, modifying diet, and weight loss—can address the majority of symptoms. Use a diary to identify if particular foods trigger your symptoms. - Dr. Shria Kumar
The most common GERD symptoms are heartburn, chest pain, throat pain, and trouble swallowing. The acid can also cause a sour taste in your mouth. Or you may get a constant cough, sore throat, or hoarse voice. Symptoms that are sometimes called indigestion are all related to acid reflux.
Other health issues can seem similar to acid reflux. These include stomach or intestinal ulcers, heart disease, inflammation, and cancer of the esophagus. They are all serious diseases—see your primary care doctor when you have these symptoms even if you think it is GERD.
Main GERD Symptoms
- Heartburn feels like a burning sensation in the middle of your chest or upper abdomen. It usually happens after eating or when lying down.
- Acidic taste
Other Symptoms You May Have
- Bad breath.
- Chest pain. Usually, in the center of your chest.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Constant cough. It usually lasts more than four weeks.
- Sore throat.
- Trouble swallowing. It might feel like something is in your throat.
- Teeth erosion. Stomach acid that comes back up toward your throat and mouth can cause teeth to wear away, causing tooth pain or tooth decay.
- Trouble sleeping. Pain may interfere with sleep.
- Breathing issues. If you have a respiratory disease like asthma, acid reflux can cause flare-ups.
Even a few pounds overweight can lead to acid reflux. Often, as patients who are overweight and have GERD lose weight, they find they can re-introduce previously cut out foods (red wine, spicy foods) into their diet. - Dr. Kumar
Acid reflux disease is usually caused by two things: your body's ability to keep food in your stomach and your eating habits.
The job of the lower sphincter muscle (LES) at the beginning of your stomach is to keep food and acid from coming back up. When the LES is too relaxed or you're lying down, food can travel in the wrong direction and into the esophagus, causing symptoms of acid reflux.
Pressure on your stomach, from being pregnant or overweight, can push food and acid back out into the esophagus, too. Spicy, fatty, and fried foods can also cause GERD.
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GERD risk factors
Certain habits can make acid reflux symptoms worse:
- Eating spicy foods, fatty foods, and large meals
- Eating right before lying down
- Drinking alcohol
- Smoking cigarettes
Pregnancy makes you more likely to have GERD, but it usually goes away after having the baby. So can these health issues:
- Being overweight
- Hiatal hernias (part of your stomach pushes up toward your chest)
- Connective tissue disorders (like scleroderma)
- Gastroparesis (your stomach has trouble emptying)
For many people, changing some habits and taking over-the-counter antacids, like Tums, relieve symptoms.
But if you have heartburn often or symptoms are severe, talk to your primary care doctor. Especially if you have chest pain, are losing weight, or feel pain when you swallow or after you eat. Your doctor may want to rule out other diseases.
If you have a parent, sibling, or another close relative who had cancer of the esophagus, stomach, or intestines, let your doctor know.
If food gets stuck in your throat, go to the nearest emergency room.
How do you stop acid reflux?
Changing your eating habits can help. But you still may need over-the-counter or prescription medication to get GERD under control. Medications can lower the amount of acid your stomach produces.
- Over-the-counter antacids
- Proton pump inhibitor and h2 blockers help decrease the amount of acid in the stomach. They are available over the counter and by prescription.
Keep your doctor updated. Your doctor may want to prescribe different or stronger medications if acid reflux continues to be a problem.
While GERD itself is not usually serious, repeated acid exposure in the esophagus can eventually lead to other problems like narrowing of the esophagus, ulcers, and esophageal cancer.
If GERD does not go away with medication and lifestyle changes, you might need surgery. Most likely, a Nissen Fundoplication, which tightens the sphincter muscle.
It is often recommended to people who have large hiatal hernias—where the upper part of your stomach bulges through an opening in the diaphragm.
How to prevent GERD
- Eat smaller meals.
- Avoid spicy, fatty, and fried foods.
- Don't lie down or go to sleep soon after eating (wait a minimum of three hours).
- Lose weight if overweight.
- Wear loose clothing to avoid pressure on your stomach.
- If you are taking antacid medications, tell your doctor, who can ensure that you are taking them correctly.
Questions your doctor may ask to diagnose
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Have you experienced any nausea?
- Have you had any changes in your weight?
- Do you have a rash?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.