The Difference between Acid Reflux and GERD
The American College of Gastroenterology says that at least 15 million Americans, or 20 percent of the American population, experience heartburn every day.
Does heartburn affect you?
Heartburn is the manifestation — the symptom — of acid reflux, or stomach contents coming back up in your esophagus.
You can often pinpoint a reason for the burn (that five-alarm chili, perhaps), but if heartburn happens often — defined as a couple of times a week — it could be a symptom of a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
While it may seem that GERD is just a fancy name for heartburn, they are more like close cousins than identical twins.
What is heartburn or Acid Reflux?
After you swallow food, it makes its way down the esophagus and into the stomach, where a ring of muscle (called the LES, lower esophageal sphincter) closes to keep the food in. But sometimes the LES is weak or doesn’t properly close, allowing stomach acid to backup, which then irritates the lining of the esophagus. That’s acid reflux, or heartburn.
· A burning sensation in the center of your chest that lasts from several minutes to an hour or two
· A feeling of chest pressure or pain that is worse if you bend over or lie down
· A sour, bitter, or acidic taste in the back of your throat
· A feeling that food is “stuck” in your throat or the middle of your chest
You can generally avoid occasional bouts of heartburn with some lifestyle modifications.
· Avoid foods that trigger reflux for you. Spicy, acidic, and fried or fatty foods are more likely to trigger reflux. So can caffeine and alcohol.
· Stay upright after eating a big meal to allow for optimal digestion.
· If you’re overweight or obese, losing some weight can help. Obesity is a factor in the weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter.
· If you smoke, do your best to quit.
When Acid Reflux Is Chronic: What Is GERD?
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, GERD is acid reflux that occurs a couple times per week. A person who has occasional heartburn will NOT necessarily progress towards having GERD. Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a condition where the stomach acid persistently and regularly flows into the esophagus.
Diagnosing the condition can be done by a gastroenterologist by evaluating symptom frequency and severity. The physician may also suggest an upper endoscopy to evaluate the esophagus.
Treatment for GERD starts with lifestyle modifications. If no relief from lifestyle changes medications will be recommended. The medication most often prescribed for GERD is a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), such as:
· Prevacid (lansoprazole)
· Nexium (esomeprazole)
· Prilosec (omeprazole)
PPIs work to decrease the amount of acid your stomach produces. The ACG notes that there’s strong evidence that an eight-week course of a PPI eases symptoms and can heal the lining of the esophagus that’s been damaged by stomach acid.
Delaying Treatment May Lead to Complications
If GERD goes untreated, it can lead to more serious complications. One such issue is esophagitis, which is inflammation in the esophagus. If not treated, strictures may develop, which is a narrowing of the esophagus that can lead to esophageal pain and affect proper swallowing.
Another complication of GERD is a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus (BE). Over time, stomach acid causes cells in the lining of the esophagus to look more like the stomach lining. These changes, which happen on a cellular level, may in rare cases lead to a form of esophageal cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma. BE is more common in:
· Caucasian males
· People older than age 50
· People who are overweight
The bottom line: If you’re experiencing heartburn at an increased frequency, talk to a doctor at Hunterdon Gastroenterology Associates to be evaluated. By learning to treat GERD with lifestyle changes or medication, you can avoid more serious complications.