If you have ever gone through the pain, sour taste and nausea of a reflux attack, you know just how uncomfortable this can be!  And you are not alone — there are 60 million people in the United States who suffer from this at least once a month and around 15 million who suffer from it every day!

What is Gastroesophageal Reflux?

Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when liquid or solid stomach contents and stomach acid back up through the stomach into the esophagus, the tube that leads from your mouth to your stomach.   If this happens regularly, someone will be diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.  Over time, it can lead to irritation and esophageal damage — and even increase the risk for esophageal cancer.

How Do You Know if Someone Has Reflux?

There are many signs and symptoms you can get if you have reflux, including:

  • Pain or burning in throat or chest
  • Sore or hoarse throat and dry cough
  • Feeling of a lump in the throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hiccups
  • Wheezing
  • Nausea

These signs and symptoms can often be worse at night or after a heavy meal.

What Causes Reflux?

Reflux happens when the muscles around the top of your stomach (called the lower esophageal sphincter or LES) do not tighten or relax after you eat.  This makes it easier for the contents of the stomach to back up into the esophagus.

What are the Risk Factors for Reflux?

There are several factors which can increase the risk of getting reflux. These include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Hiatal hernia (a condition where the top of the stomach bulges up into the chest cavity
  • Delayed emptying of the stomach (meaning that food doesn’t pass through the stomach as quickly as it should)
  • Scleroderma, a disorder that affects connective tissues
  • Taking certain medications, such as ones for high blood pressure, asthma or depression
  • In adults, pregnancy and smoking can also increase the chances of reflux

What Kinds of Problems can Reflux Cause?

There are a variety of problems that reflux can cause, including:

  • Narrowing of the esophagus due to buildup of scar tissue, which can make it hard to swallow food
  • Open sores on the esophagus which can cause bleeding, pain and difficulty swallowing
  • Asthma attacks
  • Spasms of the bronchioles (airway passages)
  • Chronic coughing
  • Inflammation of the throat and voice box
  • Inflammation and infection of the lungs
  • Wearing away of tooth enamel (due to acid content of stomach)
  • Fluid collection in sinuses and middle ear
  • A condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which is considered to be a precancerous condition

How Does a Doctor Diagnose Reflux?

Doctors will base a diagnosis of reflux on many different things, including:

  • Patient signs and symptoms
  • Use of a probe to measure the levels of acid in the stomach
  • Endoscopy, a technique doctors use to visualize the stomach and throat
  • Esophageal motility testing; this measures movement and pressure in the throat
  • Biopsy, if a doctor suspects that a patient might be at risk for esophageal cancer

What are Ways You Can Treat Reflux?

There are many different levels of treatment for reflux. Most doctors will first try diet and other lifestyle changes first.  Medicine is often the next step.  If these don’t work, surgery may be needed.

  • Diet changes include avoiding foods that trigger an attack. While triggers vary from one person to another, common ones include onions and garlic, high-acid foods like citrus and tomatoes, fried or high-fat foods, chocolate and foods and drinks containing caffeine.
  • Lifestyle changes include losing weight, wearing loose-fitting clothing, eating small meals, not lying down right after a meal and not eating too late at night. Elevating the head of the bed or using a wedge to stay propped up.
  • Medications that can help reflux include over-the-counter heartburn medications like Mylanta or Gaviscon, medications to reduce the production of acid like Tagamet or Pepcid, medications to both decrease acid and heal the esophagus (like Prevacid or Prilosec)
  • Surgery to either reinforce or strengthen the esophageal sphincter so that it will work properly and help prevent the reflux.

In short, while reflux can be a serious problem, most of the time it can be treated with changes in the diet and lifestyle, with medications and surgery to help correct the problem if needed.  Treatment is important, however, if damage to the esophagus is to be avoided.