Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

If you frequently have acid reflux, you may potentially be dealing with a serious health problem. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a condition that affects roughly 20 percent of all people in the United States, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Not treating GERD can lead to some serious issues, so it is important to seek treatment and medical advice from a licensed professional.

What Is GERD?

GERD is short for gastroesophageal reflux disease, a type of chronic acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs whenever the contents in a stomach overflow. This overflow then backs up into the esophagus. In healthy people, the stomach is filled with an acidic substance that helps to digest food. While the stomach lining is equipped to withstand this acid, the more delicate tissue of the esophagus may feel discomfort when exposed to acid.

Also called heartburn, acid reflux happens to almost everyone at some time or another. Not everyone with acid reflux has GERD though. People with GERD are typically those who have acid reflux more than twice a week over the course of several weeks.

This type of chronic acid reflux does more than just cause pain. It also results in inflammation and esophageal damage. Some people who have GERD for years may develop Barrett’s esophagus, a type of damage that may increase risk for cancer, according to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.

What Are the Symptoms of GERD?

Symptoms are not the same for everyone. Some people may feel pain so severe that they think they are having a heart attack. Others may have this condition for years without even realizing that they have a health problem. Symptoms of the condition may include the following:

  • Burning discomfort in the chest or throat
  • Sour taste in the mouth or bad breath
  • Frequent sore throats
  • Chronic dry coughing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Wheezing breath
  • Damage to the enamel of teeth
  • Sensation of tightness or pressure in the chest
  • Symptoms that worsen when lying flat or bending over

How Do Doctors Diagnose GERD?

In many cases, the signs of GERD are so obvious that all a doctor has to do is perform a clinical diagnosis. This may include them asking about symptoms, or briefly examining throat and mouth areas. However, those who want a more certain diagnosis have other options. An endoscopy is a type of test that involves a doctor placing a small camera down the throat to see if the esophagus is showing the hallmark signs of damage associated with this condition. Another test is an esophageal manometry test. The Cleveland Clinic states that this test measures the strength of the muscles at the bottom of the esophagus, so it helps to see if the sphincter between the esophagus and the stomach is opening when it should not be.

Treatment Options for People Diagnosed with GERD

There are many types of treatments available for patients who are diagnosed with this disease. A doctor may recommend one or more of the following options:

Lifestyle changes: Losing weight, wearing loose clothing, and eating smaller meals can help to reduce the amount of pressure placed on the stomach. Some people also find it helpful to avoid certain trigger foods like citrus, chocolate, tomatoes, or caffeine.

Over-the-counter medications: For occasional GERD, a simple over-the-counter medication may be enough. Options like Zantac cost as little as $0.40 per capsule and can be effective for certain individuals. Other common antacids include Maalox, Tums, and Rolaids.

Prescription medications: Prescription medications are a little stronger than basic over-the-counter options. They typically work by inhibiting the production of acid in the stomach. Options like Nexium, which cost about $9 per capsule, or Dexilant, which is about $10 per capsule, work by stopping the gastric cells that make stomach acid. Other medications—like histamine blockers—use different mechanisms to reduce acid levels.

Surgery: Though rare, it may become necessary for a person to get surgery if medications and lifestyle changes don’t work. These surgeries often involve making adjustments to the stomach to prevent acid from overflowing. Options include fundoplication surgery or a surgery that implants magnetic beads around the neck of the stomach.

This article should not replace the advice of a licensed medical professional.

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