Acid reflux disease, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a chronic digestive disease that affects nearly 20 percent of Americans, including children.
It’s a painful disease that causes stomach acid to flow backward into the esophagus, causing irritation and other side effects. Acid reflux disease can eventually lead to esophageal cancer if left untreated, so it’s important to understand the symptoms and know when to seek treatment.
The stomach produces harsh acids after a meal that help with the digestion of food. In a healthy person, a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus, called the lower esophageal sphincter, prevents the acid from backing up into the esophagus in a movement called reflux.
In people with acid reflux disease, that muscle doesn’t function properly, and the acid backs up, or refluxes, into the esophagus.
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The stomach lining is made to handle acid, but the esophagus has much more delicate lining and doesn’t repair itself as well. As a result, refluxed acid can lead to burns, which are painful and can make people nauseated, or make them feel as if they have to belch all the time.
Other symptoms include heartburn, regurgitation of bitter acid into the throat, a bitter taste in the mouth, a dry cough, hoarseness, throat tightness and wheezing.
Factors that can contribute to acid reflux include lifestyle, medicines, diet, pregnancy, rapid weight gain and certain medical conditions.
Tests for reflux disease include X-rays of the esophagus, stomach and the upper part of the intestine; a gastrointestinal endoscopy; esophageal manometry; or a 24-hour pH probe study, in which a thin probe or tube is placed in the esophagus. A gastroenterologist will perform any of those tests to determine whether symptoms are caused by acid reflux or another health problem.
Prolonged acid reflux can cause long-term damage, including a pre-cancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus, in which normal tissue lining the esophagus changes to tissue that resembles the lining of the intestine. Those who have had reflux five years or longer might require additional testing to see whether they are at risk for Barrett’s esophagus.
In some cases, a patient might receive a prescription for acid-blocking medicine that helps stop the acid-producing cells in the stomach. That way, when stomach fluids come back up, they no longer include acid and don’t burn the tissue.
Acid reflux can sometimes be prevented by changing habits. This includes avoiding alcohol and smoking, limiting fatty foods and other food triggers, maintaining a healthy body weight, and avoiding large meals within three hours of bedtime.
If you are experiencing symptoms of acid reflux disease, contact your physician today for a referral to a gastro-enterologist.
Dr. Kathleen Martin is with KentuckyOne Health Gastroenterology Associates.