When is Heartburn Something to Worry About?
Do you ever feel that burning, uncomfortable, and often painful feeling in your lower chest, sometimes spreading to the throat after eating? Most of us have experienced heartburn (acid reflux) at some point in our lives, dismissing it with “I’ve eaten too much again.” It’s not uncommon and is actually a normal process, with most occurrences being brief and not too bothersome. However, heartburn, or acid reflux, can become a serious issue if it’s a recurring problem.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when the esophagus (the tube in your throat that food travels through to reach your stomach) becomes damaged from stomach acid, often a result of a weak or leaky trapdoor (sphincter) connecting the esophagus and stomach. People who experience heartburn at least two times a week may have GERD.
The most common symptoms are:
- Chest pain
- Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
Other symptoms may include:
- Stomach pain
- Painful swallowing (odynophagia)
- Persistent laryngitis/ hoarseness
- Persistent sore throat
- Chronic cough, new onset asthma, or asthma only at night
- Regurgitation of foods/fluids; taste of acid in the throat
- Worsening dental disease
- Recurrent lung infections (pneumonia)
- Chronic sinusitis
Complications can be very serious and can include bleeding ulcers, blockages of the esophagus, permanent lung problems, and even esophageal cancer. It’s important to discuss symptoms with your doctor and devise a treatment plan.
Some factors that may contribute to GERD include:
- Alcohol use
- Certain medications that delay the emptying of the stomach after a meal
Your doctor may recommend some of the following lifestyle changes to improve symptoms:
- Eat a low-fat diet (avoid fried foods)
- Avoid certain foods that may worsen the problem (excessive chocolate, caffeine, peppermint, spicy foods, raw garlic and onions, tomato-based foods, and citrus fruits)
- Lose weight, if overweight
- Avoid alcohol
- Stop smoking
- Eat smaller meals
- Drink liquids between meals instead of with meals
- Wear loose-fitting clothes
- Avoid lying down, straining, or bending over following meals
- Raise the head of your bed by 6 to 8 inches (place wooden blocks under bedposts)
If you are concerned that you may have more than just the occasional “heartburn,” talk to your healthcare provider. It’s important to alleviate symptoms that could lead to more serious complications.