Almost everybody has experienced some form of heartburn or indigestion in their life. But how do you know when you’re experiencing it too often? And when do you really need to seek medical advice? The answers may surprise you.
Signs You Have GERD
Having acid reflux or heartburn on occasion is totally normal. But, if you have acid reflux/heartburn more than twice a week over a period of several weeks, even after taking heartburn medications or antacids, you probably have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back into the tube connecting your mouth and stomach (esophagus).
While acid reflux/heartburn are common signs of GERD, there are a few symptoms that aren’t as easy to pinpoint as a sign of GERD, such as:
- Persistent dry, cough especially when you lay down
- Difficulty swallowing
- Asthma-like symptoms
- Sore throat/hoarseness
- Bad breath
A lot of my patients are surprised to learn that they have GERD, without having a ton of heartburn or acid reflux. Once you think you have GERD, it’s important to ask your doctor about it. It’s about much more than symptom relief. Taking the steps to properly manage GERD can reduce the risk of long-term complications (including esophageal cancer), as well as provide short-term relief from those uncomfortable symptoms.
What Are the Short-Term Complications of GERD?
- Problems swallowing
- Ulcers that may develop in the esophagus
- Bleeding, either internal or vomiting blood
What Are the Long-Term Complications of GERD?
- Scarring and tightening of the esophagus, which makes it more difficult to swallow.
- Barrett's esophagus, which is a pre-cancerous condition that results from chronic acid reflux and damage to the esophagus.
- While only a small percentage of people with GERD develop Barrett’s esophagus, they are still at a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer because of the major damage to the lining of the esophagus.
- Dental hygiene can be effected by reflux of acid from the stomach to the oral cavity by damaging the enamel on teeth, especially as you age.
- Respiratory complications, like asthma flare-ups also are common, since the acid can make the airways irritated creating an immune response. Acid also can end up in the mouth and be inhaled – causing airway distress, especially in an asthmatic patient.
As a fellowship-trained gastroenterologist, I know the value of a proper diagnosis and starting the course of treatment for GERD right way. Too many of my patients have come to me too late in their GERD journey, which can lead to long-term complications like Barrett’s esophagus and cancer.
What You Can Do Now
If you think you have GERD, ask your doctor about next steps you can take. Sometimes lifestyle changes like avoiding food triggers (alcohol, tomato sauce, garlic and fried and spicy foods) or quitting tobacco or alcohol can help.
If your doctor feels you need additional diagnostic testing, you may be appropriate for a referral for Advanced Endoscopy Services at Long Beach Medical Center. Advanced endoscopy procedures can detect GI abnormalities that a regular endoscopy may miss, and can help treat or manage a range of digestive conditions, like GERD. I am one of two interventional gastroenterologists who have specialized training (beyond a general gastroenterologist) and can perform these advanced/interventional endoscopy procedures, using the latest technology.
We’re one of only a few hospitals in the region to offer this advanced care, which is typically only available in the academic setting (UCI, UCLA, etc.). These procedures are minimally invasive and help patients avoid surgery, which allows for faster recovery, no scarring and minimal complications.