When the esophagus becomes inflamed and irritated, as a result of stomach acids and digestive enzymes backing up into it, the condition is known as gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). This condition affects 25-40 percent of American adults, to varying degrees of severity, at some time in their life. However, you can develop GERD at any age.
Causes and concerns
Under normal circumstances, the lower esophageal sphincter (a muscular ring at the base of the esophagus) prevents stomach acid from backing up into the esophagus. This muscle relaxes when you swallow, permitting food to go through. Then, it tightens to stop backwards flow. However, when you have GERD, this sphincter releases between swallows, which allows stomach contents to move back up causing damage to the esophageal lining.
A definitive cause of GERD is not known but the following are contributing factors that tend to make reflux worse:
- Lifestyle: This includes alcohol use, smoking, obesity and poor posture.
- Medications: These include calcium channel blockers, theophylline, antihistamines and nitrates.
- Diet: Foods that lead to reflux include fatty, fried foods, chocolate, garlic, onions, caffeinated beverages, acidic foods, spicy foods and mint flavorings.
- Eating habits: This includes having large meals, eating too quickly or dining just before going to sleep.
- Certain medical conditions: These include hiatus hernia, rapid weight gain, pregnancy and diabetes
Symptoms and signs
There are many symptoms and signs that accompany reflux, including the following:
- Persistent heartburn (most common symptom)
- Heartburn pain that lasts for 2 hours
- Heartburn that worsens after eating
- Lying down and bending over causes or makes heartburn worse
- Regurgitating bitter acids into the throat while bending over or sleeping
- Bad taste in the mouth
- Prolonged dry cough
- Hoarseness which is particularly bad first thing in the morning
- Persistent sore throat
- Sensation of tightness in the throat as though food is stuck
- In children and babies – repeated episodes of vomiting, coughing and respiratory issues
Solutions and options
Treatment goals include reduction of reflux, relief of symptoms, and prevention of esophageal damage. Many times, symptoms can be relieved by various changes in diet, habits and lifestyle, as well as antacid medications. If you have reflux, you should consider seeing an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Also, these steps may help alleviate your reflux:
- Avoid eating three hours before bedtime – This is done because your stomach will be emptier to allow a reduction in acid production.
- Remain upright after eating regardless of time of day – This keeps stomach contents down.
- Elevate the head of your bed by six inches – This is done so that gravity helps reduce reflux.
- Eat small, frequent meals – Eating too much at any one time increases the amount of stomach acids needed for digestion.
- Dietary modifications – Avoid eating fatty/greasy foods, caffeine, chocolate, mints, mint-flavored foods or gum, spicy foods, citrus foods and tomato-based foods. These items reduce the competency of the sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus.
- Avoid alcohol – This increases the chances that your stomach acids will back up.
- Quit smoking – Do this because nicotine weakens the sphincter and causes increased reflux.
- Lose any extra weight – Obese or overweight individuals are much more prone to reflux than those in healthy weight ranges.
- Maintain good posture – This helps food and acids pass through the stomach as opposed to backing up into the esophagus.
If you or someone you love suffers with reflux, you need to call today for an appointment with one of our specially trained throat specialists. The sooner you do this, the quicker we can help find a solution to your symptoms.