Most of us have suffered from reflux at one time or another – maybe after a heavy meal, a big night out, or during pregnancy. For many, symptoms come and go, but some people have frequent symptoms that can greatly affect their quality of life. Here to explain what reflux is is HealthBay Gastroenterologist Dr. Neil Galletly.
What is acid reflux?
Reflux can mean different things to different people. When people come to see me for a consultation about their reflux, they may mean a dull burning pain behind the chest bone or an acid taste in the back of the throat that can come on after a heavy meal or in bed at night. Others may mean belching or burping more frequently, or experiencing frequent nausea after eating. And others may mean a sensation of food becoming stuck when they eat and sometimes having to wash food down or even regurgitate it out to get relief. The one thing that they have in common is that the symptoms are often made worse by food (either immediately or an hour or two afterward) and the symptoms are generally felt above the diaphragm (i.e. in the chest or throat).
Acid reflux or GERD occurs when acidic stomach contents reflux back through the sphincter into the esophagus. Unlike the stomach, with its protective layer of mucus, the lining of the esophagus is very sensitive to acid. Acid can cause pain (heartburn) and can cause inflammation of the lining of the esophagus (reflux esophagitis). If the acid reaches the back of the throat, this can cause throat irritation, an acidic taste, a persistent cough, or a hoarse voice.
If acid reflux occurs for a number of years, the persistent irritation and inflammation of the lining of the esophagus can cause scarring (which can lead to narrowing of the esophagus, causing difficulty swallowing). It can also cause changes in the cells of the bottom of the gullet (Barrett’s esophagus), which can over time progress into precancerous or even cancerous changes. People with frequent and poorly controlled acid reflux symptoms have an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Very infrequent reflux is probably nothing to worry about. But, if it becomes more frequent, if you are experiencing symptoms more than once a week, or if symptoms are impacting your ability to swallow food, it would be sensible to speak to your Family Medicine doctor or to see a gastroenterologist. The causes of reflux symptoms are usually benign and easily treatable – but more serious diseases such as ulcers or even cancer can also cause reflux symptoms or swallowing difficulties. By seeing a doctor serious diseases can be quickly excluded and, if necessary, appropriate treatment can be started.