Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, affects about 30% of the population in the United States. This chronic disorder affects the digestive system. When the muscle at the bottom of your esophagus doesn’t close properly, reflux, or leakage of the stomach contents back up into the esophagus can occur. This causes a burning sensation in the chest and throat that is commonly called heartburn. If you’re experiencing heartburn regularly, you may have a treatable condition known as GERD.
The word “gastroesophageal” refers to the stomach and esophagus, which are the two body parts primarily affected by GERD. Reflux is the flow of acidic stomach contents back into the esophagus. Repeated backup of stomach contents into the esophagus can cause potential tissue damage or other more serious issues.
Almost everyone has acid reflex now and again. But if your heartburn happens more than twice a week, or if it worsens, you may have GERD. The symptoms of GERD in adults can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Bad breath
- Chest pain
- Chronic throat irritation
- Erosion of tooth enamel
- Frequent belching
- Gum inflammation
- Heartburn that wakes you up in the middle of the night
- Nausea or vomiting
- Pain when swallowing
- Recurring heartburn that occurs regularly for years
- Recurring heartburn more than twice a week
- Respiratory problems
- Sour taste in the mouth
- Your heartburn interferes with your daily activities
GERD is tricky in the sense that some of these symptoms can appear to be caused by other illnesses. For example, chest pain should be evaluated within the worst-case scenario of heart disease first, before GERD is considered. Bad breath could come from dental disease—and so on.
There is no known single cause for GERD. When it happens, the band of muscles between the stomach and bottom of the esophagus known as the lower esophageal sphincter malfunctions. Normally, this hatch stays closed after food moves down the esophagus and into the stomach. If the hatch relaxes or otherwise malfunctions, reflux, or the flow of stomach contents into the esophagus, occurs. While occasional heartburn is common and not usually a problem, if left untreated, GERD can damage your esophagus and teeth or even lead to cancer.
Untreated GERD can cause a host of serious issues if left untreated:
- Barrett’s esophagus is when GERD causes precancerous cells in the esophagus
- Esophageal strictures are scar tissue on the lining of the esophagus which make it harder to swallow
- Esophageal ulcers, or sores in the lining of the esophagus
- Esophagitis is inflammation of the esophagus, which can lead to pain when swallowing
- Tooth decay which weakens your teeth
Having long-term untreated GERD slightly raises your odds of getting esophageal cancer. WebMD points out that if your family has a history of this type of cancer your risk also increases. Symptoms of cancer could include increased pain or difficulty swallowing, which appear in the later stages of the disease, which make it much harder to treat.