Your stomach is a special place: To digest food, it needs to be so acidic that just a drop of stomach acid eats through wood. Your stomach is lined with special cells to protect you from that acid, but the rest of your body isn’t.
That includes your esophagus, a tube about eight inches long that connects your throat and stomach. Usually, a special muscle at the bottom of your esophagus closes off, so stomach acid cannot flow back up your throat. When that muscle fails, the acid irritates the inside of your esophagus, causing it to swell up.
A few bouts of acid reflux, over time, aren’t usually a big deal for your body to repair. However, repeated acid reflux can be trouble.
“If you experience minor pain at least twice a week, or moderate to severe pain once a week, it’s time to find out if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD,” explains board-certified gastroenterologist Maria Co, MD.
If not managed well, GERD can leave lasting damage. Here’s why you shouldn’t delay treatment for your reflux symptoms.
The Long-Term Effects of GERD
Repeated acid reflux can lead to plenty of different problems, but they generally have the same cause: damage from escaped stomach acid. Here are some of the potential issues:
Barrett's esophagus. If they’re exposed to years of acid reflux, the cells in your esophagus can start to change. This doesn’t cause symptoms but puts you at a higher risk for esophageal cancer.
Esophageal cancer. There are thousands of new cases of esophageal cancer diagnosed in the U.S. each year, and many are caused by GERD.
Esophagitis. When your esophagus is irritated by stomach acid, it can swell up, causing you temporary pain and difficulty swallowing. However, if your GERD is left untreated, scar tissue can build up, causing your esophagus to narrow permanently.
Tooth decay. If acid from your stomach reaches your mouth, it can wear away at your teeth. For people who don’t experience pain, tooth decay is often the first symptom of GERD.
“Sporadic heartburn isn’t cause for serious concern, but if it’s something that happens fairly regularly, it’s important to tell your doctor,” advises Dr. Co. “It usually takes many years of damage from frequent reflux before cancer risk increases, but the sooner you get effective treatment, the better.”
As with many cancers, diagnosing esophageal cancer early is critical. When cancer is found before it spreads beyond the esophagus, an estimated 43% of patients are alive five years later. However, if it spreads to nearby tissues, the survival rate declines to 23% — and, when it spreads to other organs, further drops to 5%.
These statistics can be scary, but the good news is that esophageal cancer forms slowly, and we have the tools to stop the acid reflux that causes it.
How to Best Care for Your GERD
Your first line of defense against GERD is to change the foods or behaviors that cause your acid reflux.
“We’ll always look first at what simple daily changes might be effective in reducing your symptoms,” says Dr. Co. For some people, making one or more of the following lifestyle modifications may help:
Avoiding spicy and greasy foods
Losing weight if you’re carrying extra pounds
Staying upright after meals
Taking care not to overeat or eat, especially before bedtime
Wearing loose clothing (tight clothes squeeze your stomach and can push acid out)
There are also many great medications for GERD including:
Antacids: Because they act quickly, are available without a prescription and are inexpensive, antacids like Tums, Mylanta and Rolaids are the most common treatment for heartburn. They work by weakening your stomach acid, robbing it of the ability to burn your esophagus.
Histamine-2 Blockers: Medicines like Zantac work differently, by decreasing the amount of acid your stomach produces. These are available both over-the-counter and by prescription.
Proton Pump Inhibitors: While these medications take longer to take effect, proton pump inhibitors like Prevacid and Prilosec can provide longer relief.
“Take comfort knowing most patients find lasting relief through medication and lifestyle changes,” says Dr. Co. “But if you continue to have flare-ups, you may need to undergo endoscopic procedure to evaluate your esophagus and investigate long term consequences such as Barrett’s esophagus or precancerous lesions. If you have significant hiatal hernia, a fundoplication (a procedure to help reinforce your lower esophagus), can be recommended.”
Finding a Doctor is More Important Now Than Ever Before
Even if you’ve been living with GERD for some time, it’s more important than ever to manage your condition well for long-term health and wellness.
“We want to help you feel your best now and protect your long-term health,” says Dr. Co. “No concern is too small to bring up to your doctor; being proactive can make a huge difference in your well-being.”
When in-person visits are essential, please know that we’re doing everything we can to protect you, your loved ones and our medical teams from COVID-19. New safety protocols are in place, including:
Limited visitor policy
Patient grouping to ensure symptomatic and COVID-19-positive patients are separate from others
Social distancing to keep everyone six feet apart
Temperature screening for patients, visitors and staff
Universal mask use for every person in our facilities
In addition to these aggressive safety measures, we’re also using newer technologies to help you feel more comfortable getting care. From text alerts that allow you to wait in your car to virtual telehealth appointments, we’ll continue to expand our services to meet your needs.
If you’re living with GERD or uncomfortable symptoms, don’t suffer alone any longer. You can count on us to prioritize your peace of mind, your health and your safety. Learn more about our digestive care services here.