Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, causes both short-term symptoms and long-term effects. Taking steps to manage GERD can reduce the risk of long-term complications, as well as providing short-term relief from symptoms. If you are suffering from GERD, don’t try to ignore it: seek medical advice to prevent serious complications arising later.
Short-Term Effects of GERD
The main symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease is heartburn that occurs at least twice a week. You would feel this heartburn as a burning pain behind your breast bone and in your upper abdomen, which is the result of stomach acid spilling out of the stomach into the esophagus.
Not everyone who suffers from GERD has heartburn; other symptoms, which are especially common in children, include the following:
• Dry cough
• Difficulty swallowing
• Asthma-like symptoms
If you have GERD, you may also feel nauseous, or have a sore throat or bad breath.
Long-Term Effects of GERD
Untreated gastroesophageal reflux disease can lead to esophagitis – inflammation of the esophagus. Stomach acid is very irritating to the lining of the esophagus and can cause long-term damage. Over time, you could develop a painful ulcer.
Bleeding of the esophagus is a common long-term complication of GERD. Over a long period of time, the continuous loss of blood can lead to anemia. Stools that are very dark in color can be a warning sign of internal bleeding.
A serious, although relatively rare, complication of esophagitis is that scar tissue – known as strictures – can narrow the esophagus, making it difficult to swallow. Strictures may need to be treated by inserting an endoscope into the esophagus and inflating a balloon to dilate the passage so that food can pass through.
Barrett’s esophagus is a serious potential consequence of gastroesophageal reflux disease. In this condition, the cells in the esophageal lining change to become more like cells in the intestines. Barrett’s esophagus can develop into esophageal cancer, which can be fatal.
Treatment and Prevention of GERD Symptoms and Complications
If you are diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease, your doctor will probably make several recommendations to reduce your symptoms and protect you from developing complications. You may be told to make the following changes to your diet and lifestyle:
• Stop smoking.
• Cut down on alcohol.
• Lose weight if obese.
• Eat smaller meals.
• Eat meals that are less high in fat.
• Don’t eat right before bed.
Your doctor may also prescribe proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). These drugs reduce the amount of acid produced by your stomach, so the severity of your symptoms will be reduced.
If your esophagus is irritated, taking PPIs to reduce acidity can give the esophageal lining a chance to heal. In most people, the esophagus can heal itself very effectively if the source of irritation is removed.
You may also be told to take prokinetics, which cause the stomach to empty more quickly. In this way, the acid that is produced when you eat is quickly carried away from the inflamed esophagus.
In very severe cases of GERD, surgery may be required. Surgery can strengthen the sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus (the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES) to prevent acid from escaping from the stomach.
By managing GERD through lifestyle changes, medication, surgery, or a combination of all three, serious complications such as Barrett’s esophagus and strictures can be prevented. If you suffer from GERD, consult one of the gastroenterologists at the Gastroenterology Associates so that your condition can be properly monitored and treated.