What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is a condition where the contents of the stomach leak backward into the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that connects the throat and the stomach, so when food and liquid back up into it, it can cause irritation, heartburn, and other symptoms.
Some people may have occasional acid reflux that can be helped with some simple lifestyle changes. Others have more severe symptoms that require more immediate attention.
Heartburn is the most common symptom of acid reflux. It consists of a painful feeling that starts from the esophagus, behind the breastbone, and can spread to your neck or throat. Heartburn usually occurs after eating and at night, and symptoms often worsen when a person lies down or bends over.
Other Symptoms of Acid Reflux
Chest pain is a typical symptom of acid reflux, occurring when the stomach acid enters the esophagus. The pain can be more intense and longer lasting than expected, which is why many people mistake heartburn for a heart attack.
Having a bitter taste in your mouth is also a symptom that acid is escaping from your stomach and making its way into the back of your throat. In extremely rare cases, this can happen during sleep and cause choking.
Another symptom of acid reflux is hoarseness. Stomach acid irritates your vocal cords, making your voice sound huskier than usual, especially after you’ve eaten. Similarly, a sore throat can be caused by digestive problems, especially if your throat only hurts after you eat. Nausea that comes on right after a meal is another indication of possible acid reflux.
Causes of Acid Reflux
Commonly, food is the cause of acid reflux, and simply avoiding these triggers can make symptoms go away. Foods that are known to bring on acid reflux in many people include chocolate, carbonated beverages, fried food, alcohol, high-fat dairy products, high-fat meats, and caffeine.
Other common risk factors for acid reflux are being overweight or obese, eating too close to bedtime, smoking, and taking aspirin or ibuprofen. Also, more than half of all pregnant women experience heartburn, which will go away after delivery in most cases. In this case, increased hormones combine with the pressure from a growing fetus to cause pain and pressure.
Acid Reflux Treatments
For the occasional instances of acid reflux, there are some home remedies that may be useful to ease symptoms. Some studies have shown that chewing gum for 30 minutes after a meal can improve acid reflux symptoms. Chewing gum stimulates the salivary flow rate, which helps wash away any acid that accumulates in the gut more quickly. Baking soda can also be used to neutralize stomach acid. An occasional drink made with a cup of water and ½ teaspoon of baking soda could ease symptoms. There is also some evidence that eating licorice after a meal could ease heartburn, as it contains natural stomach healing properties.
There are many over-the-counter medications that exist to treat the symptoms of acid reflux. These include antacids such as Alka-Seltzer and Rolaids, which can neutralize stomach acid. If these medicines don’t work, a doctor may prescribe foaming agents, which coat your stomach to prevent reflux, H2 blockers, which decrease acid production, or proton pump inhibitors, which reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes.
People who cannot manage their acid reflux with lifestyle changes or over-the-counter medications, and those who experience acid reflux often, may be diagnosed with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), a chronic digestive disease. People are diagnosed with GERD when acid reflux and heartburn symptoms occur at least twice a week or interfere with their daily life, or when there is damage to the esophagus. GERD can lead to more serious complications if left untreated. When medications do not work, doctors may use surgical procedures to prevent acid reflux. These measures are only used when other treatments have been inadequate.
Continued esophageal damage can lead to scarring, which in turn can cause the esophagus to narrow. This makes it difficult to swallow, and could make it feel as though food is stuck in your esophagus. On rare occasions, the cells that line the esophagus can be damaged from the constant irritation of stomach acid, and develop abnormal shapes and colors. This condition is called Barrett’s esophagus, and can develop into cancer if left untreated.
When to Call the Doctor
People should call a doctor if over-the-counter medications are not providing lasting relief, or if they have any alarming symptoms such as: unexplained weight loss, blood in their vomit, black stools, difficulty swallowing, hiccups that don’t let up, asthma-like symptoms, or nausea that lasts for weeks or months.