You know the feeling; it starts out as a slight tingle and can develop into a burning sensation throughout your throat and chest. Indigestion….acid reflux…it doesn’t really matter what you call heartburn. It is an inconvenient biological reaction that, if persistent, is a sign of a treatable medical disorder.
Heartburn is the end result of stomach acid finding its way up into your esophagus—the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. The base of the esophagus has a barrier that allows food into the stomach but prevents acid from going in the opposite direction. This barrier does not always work perfectly. Everyone will experience heartburn from time to time. There are a few reasons why.
Common Causes of Heartburn
- Spicy and/or fatty foods
- Carbonated beverages
- Drinking alcohol
- Foods with high acid content such as citrus or tomatoes
- Certain medicines
- Being overweight
As you can see, it is possible for most people to avoid heartburn on a regular basis by avoiding particular types of food, skipping the cigarettes or even losing a little weight. You can also take over-the-counter antacids in the form of chewable tablets or pills to relieve infrequent bouts of heartburn. Sometimes heartburn just doesn’t want to go away. It keeps coming back and requires you to make investments in large amounts of over-the-counter medication. Persistent heartburn is one easily definable symptom of a larger, and treatable, disorder called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
GERD is similar to heartburn, but far more frequent. Stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, causing discomfort and a host of other issues. Ignoring GERD is not advisable because stomach acid is not meant to be in your esophagus. It is far too potent and can deteriorate the lining of your esophagus over time. To stop this corrosion of your esophagus and other unwanted results of GERD, you must visit a medical specialist.
Watch out for these other signs of GERD
- Heartburn is the easiest sign to identify. Heartburn might signal GERD if:
- It occurs two or more times per week
- It wakes you up at night
- Incidences of heartburn become increasingly uncomfortable
- You have trouble swallowing
- You regurgitate liquid into your mouth
Seeking help for GERD is very important. Over time this disorder will not only destroy the lining of the esophagus (which causes esophagitis—an inflammation of the esophagus), but can also lead to other negative side effects:
- Barrett’s esophagus: a form of cancer that can develop as a result of the destruction of the esophageal lining (this is a rare but possible condition)
- Lung infections if any liquids from the stomach end up in your lungs
To avoid these conditions, visit your healthcare provider right away if you suspect you might have GERD. A doctor will evaluate your condition and then formulate a treatment plan. Treatment can range from lifestyle changes (switching up your diet, losing weight, quitting smoking, etc.) for many patients, to surgical procedures for the very severe cases. Causes of GERD may vary, and your doctor will work to determine what is causing your condition. Some people might produce high levels of stomach acid, while others may have an issue in the diaphragm such as a hiatal hernia (a condition where the upper portion of the stomach rises into the diaphragm through the esophagus).
If you feel that you might be suffering from GERD, you can Consult-A-Nurse® by calling 1-888-741-5119 for free answers to basic medical questions and referrals to a physician. If you want to locate a specialist immediately and you are in Hudson, Trinity, New Port Richey or anywhere else along the Nature Coast, please visit the Heartburn and Swallowing Disorder Center at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.