GERD (Gastroesphogeal reflux disease) is so common that many people don’t even know they have it. They may chalk up their discomfort to simple heartburn and suffer in silence, not aware that there are interventions that can really alleviate a lot of their symptoms.
Ever year around Thanksgiving—that day we eat lots of rich, heartburn-inducing foods—the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders encourages people experiencing heartburn to consult their doctors and get checked for GERD.
Do you think you might have GERD? Read on for the most frequently asked questions about the condition, and speak to your doctor about your symptoms.
Isn’t GERD just a fancy name for heartburn?
Yes and no. Heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, but it can happen for other reasons as well. GERD is not just about what you ate today. It’s a chronic condition in which the contents of your stomach flow back into your esophagus. This causes symptoms like heartburn, and and can also damage your esophagus if it persists for a long time.
Other symptoms of GERD include difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, throat-clearing, chronic sore throat or cough, and wheezing.
What causes GERD?
After you swallow your food, it travels down the esophagus, stimulating your stomach cells to produce acid and pepsin—enzymes that aid digestion. A muscle at the lower part of the esophagus, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), allows the food to pass into the stomach, but blocks the stomach acids from rising into the esophagus. When the LES is not weak or not working properly, the stomach content can back-flow into the esophagus, causing reflux.
GERD is sometimes caused by a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia is when part of the stomach moves into the chest area, comprising the ability of the LES to do its job.
While GERD can occur symptom-free, it is still causing damage to the esophagus. Leaving it untreated can result in serious and sometimes permanent esophageal damage.
How do I know if my heartburn is GERD?
Occasional heartburn is normal, and probably not GERD. It happens when the LES is overwhelmed by stomach contents, such as when you eat too much. Frequent or constant heartburn, on the other hand, is probably GERD.
What does GERD treatment look like?
The goal of treating GERD is to control and reduce symptoms for the long-term, heal injuries to the esophagus, and prevent any complications. Your doctor will probably first recommend a combination of lifestyle changes and medication.
Lifestyle changes may involve keeping a journal of symptoms, to help you identify triggers. Certain dietary choices can affect your reflux; for example, many people report stronger GERD symptoms after eating spicy foods. Once you identify the foods that cause you the worst heartburn, you can avoid them, or eat them in moderation.
Some medications can also worsen your symptoms, so let your doctor know about all prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs you take regularly.
Many people try to self-medicate their GERD with over-the-counter heartburn medications. Most of them provide only temporary relief for heartburn, and do not prevent long-term damage to the esophagus. If you find yourself taking an OTC antacid for longer than two weeks, speak to your doctor for a better solution. The most common prescription drugs for GERD are H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors. These limit your stomach’s acid secretion, reducing the amount of acid to enter your esophagus.
For some people, surgery to strengthen the LES is the best option. Speak to your doctor about the most appropriate course of action for you. You may want to consult with a stomach specialist, called a gastroenterologist, as well.
For more information, download this informational brochure from the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders.