A gastroenterologist shares steps to identifying and managing the symptoms of acid reflux, as well as potential triggers.
It’s never fun to experience discomfort after eating a good meal, but it’s a reality that thousands of people face every day. Gastroesophageal reflux disease—commonly known as GERD—is a chronic condition that affects the gastrointestinal system and causes uncomfortable symptoms, like heartburn. But GERD is more than just occasional heartburn: It’s the recurring regurgitation of the stomach contents into the esophagus.
Symptoms and What They Can Mimic
People who suffer from GERD typically experience symptoms of reflux twice a week or more. “Common symptoms of GERD can include heartburn, sour regurgitation, altered taste sensations and discomfort in the upper abdomen,” says gastroenterologist Richard Denicola, MD. “You can have any of these symptoms related to something else, but when they are persistent, it points to GERD.”
Less common symptoms of GERD can include painful swallowing, unexplained coughing, throat clearing, wheezing and chest pain.
It’s important to remember that GERD symptoms can sometimes mimic cardiac symptoms. So, if you experience chest pain of any kind, seek immediate medical attention to rule out anything serious. In addition, if you’re having heartburn more than once per week, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about treatment options for GERD.
Those most at risk for developing GERD include people who are obese, people who have a hiatal (or stomach) hernia or those with a history of lower esophageal surgery. “Anybody who has a slow emptying stomach may have reflux symptoms, because it’s more likely that stomach contents will travel back up the esophagus,” says Dr. Denicola.
Avoiding Potential Triggers
One of the best ways to manage GERD is to avoid foods that trigger your symptoms. “Every person has different triggers, but some common foods that affect many people with GERD include tomatoes, citrus fruits, coffee, chocolate and alcohol, especially red wine. Often, foods high in acidity are the number one complaint among my patients,” says Dr. Denicola.
In addition, lying down right after a meal can cause issues for people with GERD. “I recommend waiting to lie down at least two to three hours after eating a meal. And if you experience symptoms at night, try raising the head of your bed or sleeping on extra pillows so you’re not lying completely flat,” says Dr. Denicola.
Managing Chronic GERD
Weight loss can also be effective in treating GERD over the long term. “Even losing 10 pounds can help reduce reflux symptoms for those who are obese,” says Dr. Denicola.
Aside from lifestyle changes, medications are available for people who suffer from chronic reflux symptoms. Medication options can range from H2 blockers for mild symptoms to proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) for severe symptoms. And for those who don’t respond to medications, anti-reflux surgery is an option.
“All options for treating GERD are given on an individual basis,” says Dr. Denicola. “So it’s important to discuss your needs with your provider, who can advise you on treatments and their risks and benefits.”
GERD is very common, and it’s important to address it and not just live with symptoms. “There are consequences to persistent reflux symptoms that go untreated,” says Dr. Denicola. “Barrett’s esophagus is a risk associated with long-term GERD, which can lead to esophageal cancer in certain people.” You may be at risk for Barrett’s esophagus—a condition that causes damage to the esophagus—if you’ve had GERD for more than five years and you meet one or more of the following criteria: are a male, older than 50, obese, a current or former smoker, are Caucasian or have a first-degree relative who has had esophageal cancer. If you meet these criteria, talk to your doctor about getting a screening endoscopy.