Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) Illustration

GERD Awareness Week

This year,Awareness Week takes place November 23 through 29. GERD is a common condition that can lead to serious health complications in the future if it is ignored. Oftentimes, many people commit the mistake of not taking symptoms of acid reflux or heartburn seriously. Or they believe that Antacid medications will get rid of the problem. That is why for this month, we seek to raise and spread awareness towards this condition and encourage those who show signs and symptoms of GERD to seek out advice from a health care professional.

What is GERD?

GERD is a chronic condition that occurs when stomach acid persistently flows back into the esophagus (the tube connecting the throat to the stomach), irritating its lining of tissue. The esophageal sphincter (a valve at the end of the esophagus) does not close properly when the food arrives at the stomach- resulting in acid reflux. While it is normal for some people to experience reflux symptoms a few times a month, it becomes an issue if you are dealing with acid reflux/heartburn several times within the week. Or if you find yourself constantly taking heartburn mediation to obtain relief from the pain. While those medications may help for a short while, they will not stop the underlying issue of reflux.

GERD is also very common within the US. According to the Cleveland Clinic‘s website, about 20% of people within the US population are affected by it. Keep in mind that it can also develop in anyone, no matter the age. However, your chances of developing GERD increase after the age of 40. You are also at an increased risk if you are overweight/obese, pregnant (due to increased pressure on the abdomen), have a hiatal hernia, smoke/are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke, or take medications that causes acid reflux.

Some other symptoms to look out for include:

  • Persistent heartburn: Feels like a burning sensation in your chest after eating
  • Persistent acid reflux (often leaves a sour taste in the mouth)
  • Chest or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty/pain when swallowing
  • Constant sore throat and hoarseness
  • A sensation of a lump in your throat
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Teeth erosion
  • Chronic cough
  • Laryngitis
  • Bad breath

By seeking help from your healthcare provider, you can develop a treatment plan that can help with the management of your symptoms- and keep them from developing into something more complicated. Other ways that you can try and alleviate your symptoms at home (but do not replace the advice/treatment of your healthcare professional) include:

  1. Lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Eat small frequent meals throughout the day rather than large amounts.
  3. Avoid eating before bedtime and eat at least three hours before going to bed.
  4. You may have to reduce the amount of fat you consume in your food.
  5. While eating, sit upright. Keep an upright position (whether you are sitting or standing) about 45-60 minutes after your meal. Avoid lying down after eating.
  6. Try not to wear tight clothes around the stomach area (it can push acid up into your esophagus).
  7. If you experience frequent heartburn at night, it may help to raise your head about 6 to 9 inches when sleeping.
  8. Stop smoking.
  9. Take your medications as directed by your healthcare provider. Set up an alarm to serve as a reminder to take your medication if you have trouble remembering.
  10. Slow down and thoroughly chew when eating.
  11. Start keeping track of foods/things that may trigger symptoms. Discuss that list with your doctor or specialist.
  12. Cut out specific trigger foods. Every person will have a different set of trigger foods to reduce/avoid. We recommend that you discuss with your doctor different ways in figuring out which foods to cut out/reduce within your diet. Some of the types of foods to limit/avoid may include:
  • Spicy foods
  • Fried foods
  • Fatty food (includes dairy)
  • Chocolate
  • Tomato sauce
  • Garlic and onions
  • Alcohol, coffee, and carbonated drinks
  • Citrus fruits
  • Mint

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may also prescribe you over-the-counter medications. Also, depending on how you react to the medications (or how severe your condition is), your doctor may turn to surgery or other procedures. Keep in mind that there are different stages of severity within this condition. Each stage of GERD depends on the frequency and severity of an individual’s condition. The stages are:

Stage 1: Mild

It is the most common stage that the majority of people with GERD fall into. Patients may experience mild symptoms such as:

  • Heartburn
  • Chest pain
  • The feeling of a lump at the back of the throat
  • Regurgitation of food or liquid
  • Mild inflammation of the lower esophagus

Many times these symptoms occur less than once a week. Usually, they can be managed through lifestyle changes such as changes to your diet/exercise. Doctors will also prescribe over-the-counter medications, which are generally effective in treating symptoms.

Stage 2: Moderate

About a third of people with this condition fall into this stage. The increased frequency of acid reflux often leads to more inflammation in the lower part of the esophagus. Symptoms may include:

  • Heartburn
  • Chest Pain
  • A feeling of a lump in the back of your throat
  • Regurgitation of food or liquid

The difference with these symptoms is that they are sometimes not easy to manage with over-the-counter medications. Patients also experience more frequent symptoms that occur several times a week. Usually, extra steps need to be taken to help manage symptoms.

Stage 3: Severe

About 15% of people with this condition fall into this stage. People have poorly controlled symptoms even though they are on prescription medications. Symptoms are more significant, and they occur several times a week or even daily. People also have significant problems with the severity of inflammation in their esophagus. Symptoms include:

  • Atypical GERD
  • Heartburn
  • Regurgitation of food or liquid
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Chronic cough

Those within this stage also have a risk of developing severe complications from this chronic condition. In many of these cases, a GERD specialist is often needed to help form an appropriate treatment plan.

Stage 4: Esophageal cancer or Precancerous Lesions

About 10% of those with GERD fall into this stage. It is often the result of leaving severe GERD untreated for years. Symptoms include:

  • Heartburn
  • Regurgitation of food or liquid
  • Atypical GERD
  • Endoscopic findings of strictures
  • Barrett’s esophagus
  • Esophageal cancers
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Chronic cough
  • Dysphagia (food getting stuck in the esophagus while eating)

People within this stage suffer from complications that result in esophageal strictures, Barrett’s esophagus, and esophageal cancer. Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that develops from the years of damage acid reflux causes in the esophagus (when left untreated). This condition eventually leads to changes in the cell lining of the esophagus and increases one’s risk of developing cancer within this area. Meanwhile, esophageal cancer can be divided into two major types. Adenocarcinoma develops in the lower part of the esophagus and is the result of Barrett’s esophagus. Squamous cell carcinoma begins in the cell lining of the esophagus. This type of cancer usually affects the upper and middle parts of the esophagus. At this stage, it is required that one seeks help from a GERD specialist that will help form an appropriate treatment plan for you and conduct any further tests/procedures. One may be required to undergo surgery or cancer treatment if one has developed esophageal cancer.

Other complications that may arise with GERD (especially when left untreated for so long) include:

  • Severe damage to the esophagus
  • Damage to the throat
  • The development of strictures: Scar tissue that forms as the lining of the esophagus is damaged by stomach acid. It can eventually interfere with one’s ability to eat and drink.
  • Esophagitis: Irritation and inflammation in the lining of the esophagus resulting from the reflux of stomach acid. It can cause ulcers in the esophagus, heartburn, chest pain, bleeding, and trouble swallowing.
  • Respiratory problems
  • Lung problems: Stomach acid can get into the lungs and cause your voice to get hoarse. You can also develop postnasal drip, chest congestion, and a lingering cough. Also, the increased inflammation in your lungs can lead to more severe complications with asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Thus, within this blog, we would like to highlight the importance of seeking help from your healthcare provider to get a diagnosis and form a treatment plan as soon as possible. While GERD itself isn’t life-threatening or dangerous, long-term GERD can lead to severe complications and health issues in the future. If you or a family member are experiencing frequent problems with acid reflux and heartburn issues, we highly encourage you to seek further medical help/advice. If this condition is left untreated for a long period, it can significantly impact your health in the future- or become harder to manage. Or worse, it can lead to the development of other diseases such as esophageal cancer. Take a proactive approach to your health this November for GERD Awareness Week!

Sources: www.bvhealthsystem.org, my.clevelandclinic.org, www.cooperhealth.org

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