Burping, belching, heartburn—you’ve probably experienced one or more of these symptoms after a spicy meal, a few drinks, or too much birthday cake. And you aren’t alone. “GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is one of the most common digestive disorders in the U.S. with millions of people frequently experiencing associated symptoms including heartburn, an upset stomach, an itchy or burning feeling in the throat or even difficulty swallowing,” according to Jay Yepuri, MD, a gastroenterologist with Digestive Health Associates of Texas. “Severe GERD can affect a person’s health in a number of serious ways.”
Here’s what you need to know when your GERD won’t go away.
1. GERD can cause damage to your throat and esophagus
Acid builds up and travels from your stomach, up through your esophagus, and into your throat and mouth. Over time, this acid can start to harm the lining of your esophagus, leading to a condition called esophagitis, an inflammation of the esophagus. This can make your GERD symptoms worse, causing pain in your throat, difficulty swallowing, and more acid reflux.
2. GERD can lead to erosion of your tooth enamel and further tooth decay
The acid reflux making constant contact with your mouth can have harmful effects on your teeth and gums. Over time, acid can wear away at your tooth enamel (International Journal of Dentistry). GERD patients who are on certain medications for their symptoms, such as PPI’s or other antacids, may experience dry mouth, which can increase the amount of dental bacteria in the mouth and further tooth decay (National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research).
3. GERD affects your sleep, eating habits and everyday life activities
GERD sufferers will tell you their lives are affected by their GERD in every way—eating, socializing, exercising, sleeping. All of the meds, diet and lifestyle changes do not solve the reflux. GERD tends to be worse at night so lying down can cause pain, discomfort, coughing, and retching.
Got GERD? Your list of foods to avoid range from chocolate to wine, coffee, and citrus. And, with all of that acid sloshing around, physical activities, such as sports or exercise, can be difficult too.
4. Long-term use of PPI’s (like Prevacid, Nexium, and Prilosec) has been linked with harmful side effects
PPI’s and other OTC meds can provide some relief from the painful symptoms of GERD, but they don’t necessarily resolve the reflux. And, for 30%-40% of people who take PPI’s long-term, they often don’t even work. Research points out that extended use of PPI’s can lead to diminished calcium absorption, bone fractures, and possible chronic kidney disease (JAMA). Recent studies also suggest an association between extended PPI use and dementia (JAMA 2). Both surgical (e.g., the Laparoscopic Nissen Fundoplication) and non-surgical interventions (e.g., the Stretta Procedure) are available that can serve as alternatives to long-term medication use.
5. Left untreated, GERD can increase the risk of cancer
Self-medicating your GERD may make you feel better in the short-term, but in the long-term you may be doing more harm than good. Untreated, GERD can lead to Barrett’s Esophagus, a condition where the normal lining of the esophagus is altered to resemble the lining of the intestines (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases). Having Barrett’s can raise your risk of developing esophageal cancer, a cancer whose rates are on the rise, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“If reflux doesn’t go away or gets worse despite diet and lifestyle changes or taking OTC or prescription medications, a person should seek medical attention,” said Yepuri.