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Why Frequent Heartburn Could Mean GERD (And What to Do About It)

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“In some people, stomach contents regularly leak into their food pipe, or a relatively large amount leaks out,” the U.S. National Library of Medicine says. “It is considered to be GERD if this causes frequent or severe heartburn or acid reflux that affects your quality of life, or if your food pipe has become inflamed.”

If even the sight of spicy food gives you heartburn, you may need more than the antacids you carry around to eat the foods you like. You may, in fact, have GERD.

GERD is gastroesophageal reflux disease, and it causes acid reflux that gives you that burning feeling in your throat and chest called heartburn. However, not everyone who gets heartburn has GERD, unless symptoms get progressively worse.

“In some people, stomach contents regularly leak into their food pipe, or a relatively large amount leaks out,” the U.S. National Library of Medicine says. “It is considered to be GERD if this causes frequent or severe heartburn or acid reflux that affects your quality of life, or if your food pipe has become inflamed.”

Here are signs you might have GERD.

You get frequent heartburn

If you suffer from acid reflux a few times a week, it may be more serious than heartburn. Make a note on a calendar to track how often it occurs.

“Most people can experience heartburn and acid reflux intermittently related to something they ate or habits like lying down immediately after eating,” Healthline says. “However, GERD is a chronic condition where doctors start to examine long-lasting habits and parts of a person’s anatomy that could cause GERD.”

If you suffer from heartburn daily, or even more than twice per week, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist.

You have chest pain

Chest pain can be related to several medical problems and requires immediate attention from a doctor.

“Chest pain may indicate acid reflux,” the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders says. “Nevertheless, this kind of pain or discomfort should prompt urgent medical evaluation. Possible heart conditions must always be excluded first.”

If you notice chest pain, especially after eating or when you lie down, it could be because of acid reflux associated with GERD.

You have difficulty swallowing

Difficulty swallowing, also called dysphagia, is indicative of GERD in combination with other symptoms.

“Dysphagia is referred to as an ‘alarm symptom,” RefluxMD says. “Although usually related to a slight decline in the ability of the esophageal muscle to squeeze caused by GERD, dysphagia should be evaluated immediately since it is the most common symptom associated with reflux-induced esophageal cancer.”

Stomach acid backing up into your esophagus can cause ulcers that turn into scars, ultimately narrowing your esophagus. That acid may also reach your throat, to the extent that frequent sore throats are another sign of GERD.

You have bad breath

Stomach acid in your esophagus and throat can cause bacteria to grow, which contributes to smelly breath and teeth erosion. Researchers give several reasons for the strong association between GERD and bad breath in the Journal of General Internal Medicine:

  • Acid reaches the space between the nose and mouth, causing mucus to accumulate.
  • Intestinal gas and stomach contents backing into the esophagus create a bad smell.
  • Acid injuries in the esophagus lead to halitosis.

You are pregnant

GERD symptoms can start at any point during pregnancy and progressively worsen. Hormones slow your digestive system, and your uterus pushes up on the stomach, forcing stomach acid into the esophagus. Although GERD symptoms are common during pregnancy, there is good news.

“They rarely cause complications, such as inflammation of the esophagus (esophagitis),” WebMD says. “Most of the time, symptoms of heartburn improve after the baby is born.”

You are obese

According to the Obesity Action Coalition, obesity is associated with three esophageal disorders including GERD. Experts hypothesize that excess belly fat puts pressure on the stomach and leads to a hiatal hernia, which causes acid backflow into the esophagus. The risk increases as weight increases.

What you can do

There are changes you can make to deal with GERD such as losing weight, eschewing greasy and spicy foods and alcohol, quitting smoking, avoiding overeating and not eating a few hours before bedtime, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Severe symptoms may also need medical intervention so if you have signs of GERD, make an appointment at The Endoscopy Center, which specializes in digestive health. A doctor will give you options for lifestyle changes and, if symptoms persist, can explain other treatment options.