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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD); Key Q&A.

What is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition where stomach acid washes back up into the esophagus, the long muscular tube connecting the back of your throat with your stomach.

What are the most common symptoms of GERD?

Heartburn, which is the burning discomfort that rises up from the stomach into the chest, and acid regurgitation, which is the feeling of bitter or sour taste material into the mouth when stomach contents wash back up into the mouth.

I had heartburn after I ate Thanksgiving dinner. Do I have GERD?

Everyone experiences heartburn at some point in his or her life. Typical diagnosis of GERD is the occurrence of heartburn more than twice a week over a period of several weeks, or if symptoms of frequent heartburn disrupt your daily life.

I just take antacids and, usually, my symptoms go away. Why should I consider another medication?

Antacids are good for occasional symptoms, but recurrent or persistent symptoms could indicate more serious problems. Other medications, such as proton pump inhibitors and histamine receptor antagonists, are highly effective, can prevent symptoms from occurring and can heal esophageal inflammation. If you have frequent heartburn, discuss it with your health care professional.

What causes GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the abnormal backflow of stomach acid up into the esophagus, the long, muscular tube that connects the back of the mouth to the stomach. The muscle at the border of the esophagus and stomach is called the sphincter. It works as a gate, normally closed to prevent reflux but temporarily opening after you swallow to allow passage of food contents into the stomach. Acid reflux occurs when this sphincter or "gate" opens at the wrong time or is too weak, allowing stomach contents to leak back (or reflux) into the esophagus. Certain foods and medications can cause promote reflux by causing relaxations or low pressure in this sphincter or "gate."

Acid reflux is more common in people with a hiatal hernia, in which the stomach's normal position has shifted upward so part of it is in the chest.

The most common symptom people with GERD suffer is heartburn. If the reflux persists, the lining of the esophagus is damaged and can result in esophageal erosions, ulcers, inflammation or more significant changes, such as a condition called Barrett's esophagus.

Can children have GERD?

Yes. Even infants can have GERD.

What are the complications of GERD?

Erosive esophagitis. This is the chronic inflammation of the lining of the esophagus.

Esophageal ulcers. These are small crater-like areas in the lining of the esophagus. They may bleed and can be painful.

Esophageal narrowing. Scarring of the esophagus causes this condition. If narrowing occurs, swallowing may become difficult and painful.

Barrett's esophagus. This is a condition where the cells lining the esophagus have become abnormal. It can be a precancerous condition in some people. Although the risk of cancer is low, it requires surveillance by endoscopy every two to three years.

Lung problems, such as recurrent pneumonia, wheezing and asthma. Theoretically, these conditions may occur when stomach contents wash back up the esophagus and spill into the trachea and down into the lungs or when stomach contents traveling into the esophagus cause a bronchial reflex.

Laryngitis. This symptom may be caused by stomach acid causing inflammation of the vocal cords. The relationship between reflux and laryngitis is not completely clear. Other causes, such as allergies, smoking or post-nasal drip, should be investigated.

Tooth decay. This condition is caused by stomach acid wearing away the enamel on the teeth.

I've been told I have a hiatal hernia, what is that?

A hiatal hernia develops when part of the stomach protrudes up through the diaphragm (the muscular layer between the abdomen and the chest) and into the chest. Heartburn is a common problem associated with a hiatal hernia. Not all patients with hiatal hernia have GERD, and many GERD patients don't have a hiatal hernia.

Can GERD cause cancer?

Chronic GERD can damage the esophagus and lead to a condition called Barrett's esophagus. Those with Barrett's esophagus do have a significantly increased risk of cancer of the esophagus. Only endoscopic biopsy can reliably diagnose Barrett's esophagus. Also, there appears to be an increase in cancer of the esophagus even if Barrett's esophagus has not developed.

Can GERD be cured?

No. But with adherence to lifestyle changes and taking medication, the symptoms can usually be easily treated. In some conditions, like pregnancy, GERD will go away on its own. Surgery does not cure GERD, but the fundoplication wraps part of the stomach around the lower end of the esophagus to prevent acid from refluxing.

I have been diagnosed with GERD. What symptoms should I look for?

no improvement after two weeks of lifestyle changes and antacids or acid reducers, or if symptoms are worsening

choking or difficulty swallowing

unexplained weight loss

vomiting

blood in your stool, maroon or tarry-looking stools

vomiting blood

chest pain

Will I have to have any diagnostic tests to determine if I have GERD?

Most people can be diagnosed based on their symptoms and the response to treatment. Diagnostic tests are sometimes ordered for those with severe or persistent symptoms or to determine if there is another cause of the symptoms.

References

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Keywords: gastroesophageal reflux disease, gerd, heartburn, acid refluxing, barrett's esophagus, hiatal hernia
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Article Type:Disease/Disorder overview
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Date:Mar 13, 2007
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