Most people in the U.S. experience heartburn as often as once a month, so it makes sense that this symptom is frequently ignored or considered “part of life.” For this reason, November 18-24 is dedicated to spreading awareness about gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. That heartburn you consider normal becomes a big risk when it starts happening more frequently. Knowing if you are at risk and how to spot the symptoms will help you identify GERD.
Acid reflux is when acid from the stomach goes backwards up into the esophagus. There is a small ring of muscles at the entrance to the stomach called a sphincter. The sphincter opens to let food pass into the stomach and closes to keep food there. However, in people with acid reflux, the sphincter either doesn’t close all the way or it opens too frequently. When this happens more than twice a week, it is considered GERD. GERD can happen to anyone, but certain people are at higher risk. Obesity causes excess pressure on the abdomen and can force stomach contents back into the esophagus.
In pregnancy, a growing baby can also put added pressure on the stomach. Pregnancy also produces hormones that can make the sphincter weak and less effective. Other medical conditions, such as hernia, ulcers, and diabetes, can make a person more susceptible to GERD. Like pregnancy, hernia can weaken the esophageal sphincter. Ulcers make it more difficult to move food from the stomach to the small intestines, so the food lingers in the stomach longer, increasing the stomach acid and the chance that it could flow into the esophagus. Diabetes is similar in that it makes a person more likely to get gastroparesis, which causes the stomach to take longer to empty. Although it is not yet completely understood, researchers have noticed a connection between asthma and GERD. It could be that persistent coughing and pressure from the lungs contribute to reflux.
In addition to heartburn and regurgitation, other symptoms of GERD include bloating, belching, frequent hiccups, and nausea. In some cases, symptoms are much more serious such as chest pain, black or bloody stools, shortness of breath, and chronic wheezing or sore throat. For people with nighttime GERD, it is not uncommon to experience laryngitis, sleeplessness, and frequent cough. It is important to seek medical help immediately if you have chest pain or shortness of breath, especially if you also have arm or jaw pain, because this could be a sign of a heart attack.
Allergies vs. Reflux
A tricky thing about GERD, and another reason why awareness is important, is that its symptoms can sometimes mimic other illnesses. There are also instances of GERD without the symptom of heartburn, adding to the confusion. This is the case with silent reflux. Its symptoms include things associated with ear, nose, and throat diseases, but it actually relates to esophageal issues. Silent reflux happens the same as regular reflux in that acid is flowing out of the stomach and into the esophagus, but instead of causing burning and nausea, it irritates the throat and causes excess mucus buildup. This leads to symptoms similar to those of allergies like hoarseness, cough, post-nasal drip, and the feeling of a lump in the throat.
Unlike allergies, however, silent reflux does not cause itchy eyes or face, sneezing, or runny nose, and it cannot be treated with cold or allergy medication. Left untreated, silent reflux can cause sleep apnea, asthma, and even esophageal cancer, so it is important to get the proper diagnosis and treat appropriately. Many treatments are available for GERD and silent reflux from lifestyle changes to various medications. If you suspect you may be suffering from GERD or are wondering if your seeming allergy symptoms are related to something else, GI Associates can help. Make an appointment at one of our three locations today!