Get the Facts About GERD
Nearly one out of every two adults has had heartburn at some point. This burning sensation behind the breastbone or in the back of the neck or throat is caused by stomach acid backing up into the esophagus, the tube between your throat and your stomach.
Occasional heartburn usually isn't cause for concern. If it occurs more than twice a week, however, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD symptoms can last for several hours and are often worse at night, when the most damage is done to the esophagus, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of misinformation out there about GERD. Here is some straight talk on four common myths.
Myth 1: GERD is harmless.
Fact: Occasional heartburn generally isn't serious. But chronic GERD can lead to health problems. If left untreated, it can cause or make asthma worse. Stomach acid can cause inflammation in the esophagus, which may lead to bleeding and ulcers in the esophagus. And, scar tissue may make swallowing difficult. In fact, some people with GERD develop Barrett's esophagus, which eventually may lead to cancer.
Myth 2: If you don't have heartburn, you don't have GERD.
Fact: The most common symptom of GERD is heartburn, "but you can have GERD without it," says Beth Schorr-Lesnick, M.D., a spokeswoman for the American College of Gastroenterologists (ACG). Other symptoms include hoarseness in the morning or after a meal, excessive throat clearing, coughing, nausea, a bitter acid taste and chest pain.
Myth 3: Lifestyle and eating habits have nothing to do with GERD.
Fact: Experts aren't sure what causes GERD. But, being overweight or pregnant, consuming alcohol and smoking have been associated with it. To help reduce symptoms, lose excess weight, don't drink alcohol, quit smoking, eat smaller meals, don't eat within three hours of going to bed and avoid wearing tight clothes. Staying away from citrus fruits, tomato products, caffeine, fatty or spicy foods, garlic, onions and mint also may help. Dr. Schorr-Lesnick recommends chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugar-free candy so that you make more saliva. It helps food go down easier. Raising the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches by putting blocks under the legs may help reduce reflux, too.
Myth 4: If I need relief, I can just take more antacids.
Fact: Over-the-counter (OTC) antacids are fine occasionally. But, they may cause side effects such as diarrhea or constipation. Several other OTC options also are available, including stomach acid suppressants and a proton pump inhibitor. The ACG recommends that no OTC remedy be used for more than 14 days. Taking them too often or for too long may mask a more serious problem. So, if you take OTC remedies for heartburn more than twice a week or for longer than recommended, talk with your doctor. He or she may want to rule out other possible causes of your heartburn and recommend other ways to get relief.