Nearly everyone has heartburn now and then. But heartburn is also the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), so talk to your doctor if:
- Your heartburn happens 2 or more times a week
- Your heartburn gets worse
- Your heartburn happens at night and wakes you from sleep
- You’ve had heartburn now and then, but for several years
- You have difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Your discomfort or pain interferes with your daily activities
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a very common disorder. Gastroesophageal refers to the stomach and the esophagus. Reflux refers to the back-flow of acidic or non-acidic stomach contents into the esophagus. There is no known single cause of GERD. It occurs when the esophageal defenses are overwhelmed by stomach contents that reflux into the esophagus. A band of muscles at the junction of the stomach and esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) normally acts, in conjunction with the diaphragm, as a barrier to prevent reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus.
If that barrier is relaxed at inappropriate times or is otherwise compromised, reflux occurs. GERD is characterized by symptoms and/ or tissue damage that results from repeated or prolonged exposure of the lining of the esophagus to contents from the stomach. If tissue damage is present, the individual is said to have esophagitis or erosive GERD. The presence of symptoms with no evident tissue damage is referred to as non-erosive GERD. Chronic heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD. Acid regurgitation (refluxed material into the mouth) is another common symptom. But numerous less common symptoms other than heartburn may be associated with GERD. These may include:
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Waterbrash (sudden excess of saliva)
- Dysphagia (the sensation of food sticking in the esophagus)
- Chronic sore throat
- Inflammation of the gums
- Erosion of the enamel of the teeth
- Chronic irritation in the throat
- Hoarseness in the morning
- A sour taste
- Bad breath
- Chest pain may indicate acid reflux.
- Nevertheless, this kind of pain or discomfort should prompt urgent medical evaluation.
Possible heart conditions must always be excluded first.