What is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?

by Andy J. Thanjan, MD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a disease where acid from the stomach goes upward into the tube-like structure that connects the mouth to the stomach called the esophagus.

Some of the symptoms associated with GERD are burning in the chest (“heartburn”), acidic taste in the throat, hoarseness, chronic cough, or vomiting.

There are basic diet and lifestyle changes that patients can make to potentially improve their GERD. Foods that may make reflux worse include spicy foods, excessive caffeine, chocolate, fatty foods, and peppermint. Lifestyle changes include losing weight if overweight, raising the head of the bed by 6-8 inches, minimizing alcohol use, stopping cigarette smoking, and avoiding lying flat 3 hours after a meal.

If diet and lifestyle modifications are not sufficient, medications can be used to treat symptoms. Three classes of medications that are used for GERD are antacids, histamine blockers, and proton pump inhibitors. These medications are used to lower the acidity within the stomach to alleviate symptoms. Proton pump inhibitors are the strongest of the medications and are available over the counter and by prescription.

Consider seeing a Gastroenterologist if you have longstanding severe symptoms or inability to control your symptoms. Concerning symptoms of reflux include difficulty swallowing, vomiting of blood, unexpected weight loss, or black bowel movements consistent with bleeding.

Potential long-term complications of GERD include ulceration of the esophagus, esophageal stricture, and Barrett’s esophagus (a pre-malignant condition). A Gastroenterologist with the use of a flexible camera, called an upper endoscope, can further evaluate the esophagus for these entities.