Understanding Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and its Symptoms

GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is a condition where caustic digestive juices of the stomach flow backwards into the esophagus. It involved the esophagus (the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach) and the digestive fluids from the stomach. GERD symptoms may be persistent and can take more than a few weeks of treatment before symptoms begin to improve.

How GERD occurs

A muscular ring called the esophageal sphincter seals the esophagus from the stomach. This sphincter opens when you swallow to allow food into the stomach and then squeezes tight the rest of the time to prevent food and acidified content in the stomach from flowing backwards up into the esophagus.

However, for people with GERD, the esophageal sphincter does not seal tightly as it normally should between swallows, rather it remains relaxed after swallowing food. This allows digestive juices in the stomach to back up into the esophagus and irritate the esophageal lining, causing GERD symptoms.

GERD symptoms

The backward flow of stomach juices is called ‘reflux.’ A reflux inflames the lining of the esophagus due to the caustic effect of stomach juices, causing heartburn. Heartburn, the most common symptom of GERD, may be worse when you eat, lie down or bend over.

Other symptom of GERD may include:

  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Wheezing, coughing or a constant need to clear your throat
  • Backflow of stomach fluids into your mouth (regurgitation)
  • Hoarseness, especially in the morning
  • Nausea

GERD treatment options

Treatment options for people with GERD include taking medication and adopting lifestyle changes, such quitting smoking and alcohol as these substances loosen the esophageal sphincter, as well as avoiding carbonated beverages that worsen the irritation during a reflux.

Medications used to treat GERD may include: over-the-counter (OTC) drugs that act as buffers to neutralize acid, and prescription drugs that help to decrease esophageal reflux (for example, antacids, pro-motility drugs and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).

If GERD symptoms persist, surgery or endoscopy treatment may be advised by your doctor.

When to see a doctor

GERD can cause permanent damage to the lining of the esophagus if left untreated, although this is uncommon. Permanently damage to the lining of the esophagus can cause esophagitis (inflammation).

Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience severe or frequent GERD symptoms. Similarly, see your doctor if you take-over-the-counter medications for heartburn more than twice a week.

Also seek immediate medical attention if you experience chest pains, especially if you have other symptoms like shortness of breath or arm or jaw pain. These may be symptoms of a heart attack.

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