It’s not a coincidence that Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) Awareness Week, November 20-26, takes place the week of Thanksgiving. It’s a time when many people overeat and indulge in special treats, making it the perfect opportunity to highlight and spread awareness about GERD.
Studies suggest that GERD affects approximately 20% of the U.S. population, making it one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders in the nation. It also affects people of all ages — from infants to older adults. But because many people don’t seek medical help for GERD symptoms, the number may not be accurate.
What Is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux or heartburn, is a digestive disorder that creates a burning feeling in your chest that occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus.
What Are the Symptoms of GERD?
GERD has many symptoms, some of which may indicate severe complications or life-threatening problems. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms, but the most common symptoms include:
- Heartburn or a burning sensation in your chest that usually occurs after eating and can be worse when lying down, bending over, or at night
- Feeling like you’re regurgitating your food or liquid, sometimes with a bitter or sour taste
- Pain in your upper abdominal or chest area
- Problems or pain when swallowing food or drink
- Feeling as though there’s a lump in your throat
- A persistent cough
- Frequent belching
- Nausea or vomiting
Seek immediate medical advice if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Chest pain caused by activity, like climbing stairs
- Unexplained or unexpected weight loss
- Choking while eating or trouble swallowing food and liquids
- Vomiting blood or material that looks like coffee grounds
- Stool that is red or black
Causes and Risk Factors for GERD
Various lifestyle issues can cause GERD, including:
- Being overweight, obese, or pregnant
- Some medications for asthma, high blood pressure, allergies, antidepressants, aspirin, and over-the-counter pain and fever medication (let your provider know what you take)
- Smoking tobacco
- Consuming alcohol
- Eating foods like citrus, chocolate, and fatty or spicy foods
- Overeating and eating quickly
Certain health conditions may also contribute to GERD, such as:
- Swelling of your stomach lining (gastritis)
- Ulcers (painful sores on your stomach lining or esophagus or the first part of your small intestine, [duodenum])
- An allergic condition in the esophagus (eosinophilic esophagitis)
There are several tests used to diagnose GERD.
- Upper gastrointestinal GI endoscopy and biopsy: An endoscope (a long tube with an attached light) is fed through your mouth and throat to look at the lining of your upper GI tract (esophagus, stomach, and duodenum). As part of the procedure, your provider will take a biopsy (a tiny bit of tissue) to examine you for GERD or other problems.
- Upper GI series: After drinking barium, a liquid that moves through your GI tract, an X-ray is taken to show any GERD-related problems.
- Esophageal pH and impedance monitoring and Bravo wireless esophageal pH monitoring: A thin tube is inserted through your nose or mouth into your stomach to measure the pH levels in your esophagus. You’re given a monitor that measures and records your pH as you regularly eat and sleep. The esophageal pH and impedance monitor is worn for 24 hours, while the Bravo system is worn for 48 hours.
- Esophageal manometry: A small, flexible tube with sensors is inserted into your nose to test the functionality of the lower esophageal sphincter and esophageal muscles to move food normally from the esophagus to the stomach. The sensors measure the strength of your sphincter, muscles, and spasms as you swallow.
Tips To Prevent GERD Symptoms
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat small, frequent meals a few times a day instead of huge amounts of food.
- Decrease the amount of butter, oils, salad dressings, gravy, fatty meats, and full-fat dairy products such as sour cream, cheese, and whole milk that you eat or drink to reduce your fat intake.
- Sit upright while eating and remain upright (sitting or standing) for 45 to 60 minutes afterward.
- Don’t eat immediately before you go to bed.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothes that aren’t tight in the belly area. Tight clothing can squeeze your stomach and push acid up into the esophagus.
- Consider raising the head of the bed with wooden blocks under the bedposts six to eight inches. Extra pillows don’t work.
- Stop smoking.
- Take any medication your healthcare provider prescribes as directed.
- Eliminate possible trigger foods.
Is GERD Dangerous?
Although it’s generally not life-threatening, long-term GERD can cause serious health issues.
- Esophagitis: The irritation and inflammation the stomach acid causes in the esophagus lining can cause ulcers in your esophagus, heartburn, chest pain, bleeding, and trouble swallowing.
- Barrett’s esophagus: Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that develops in approximately 10% of people with long-term GERD. Over the years, acid reflux can cause damage that changes the cells in the esophagus lining. Barrett’s esophagus is also a risk factor for cancer of the esophagus.
- Esophageal cancer: Two major types of cancer begin in the esophagus. Adenocarcinoma most often develops in the lower part of the esophagus and can develop from Barrett’s esophagus. Squamous cell carcinoma is a cancer that usually affects the upper and middle part of the esophagus and begins in the cells that line the esophagus.
- Strictures: The lining of the esophagus can sometimes become scarred, causing the esophagus to narrow. In these cases, the strictures can interfere with eating and drinking by preventing food and liquid from reaching the stomach.
Take Care Of Your Digestive System
If you’re concerned about your digestive system or experiencing any GERD symptoms, reach out to your primary care provider to schedule an initial checkup. You may be referred to a specialist, such as Gastroenterology & Hepatology at Colorado Mountain Medical, a partner of Vail Health. Your healthcare team can advise you on the right precautions to avoid any severe repercussions of GERD. And enjoy your Thanksgiving feast!
This article was reviewed by Suzanne Torris, MS, RN, FNP.