Common Facts You Should Know About Heartburn
So you’ve finished the entire bottle of antacid for heartburn and the pain and discomfort won’t go away? You run to the pharmacy and get the Tagamet, but still no relief. Why? Well there may be a simple reason called GERD.
What is GERD? GastroEsophageal Reflux Disease or GERD is heartburn that comes back more than twice a week. Research has shown that as many as 19 million Americans may be suffering from this serious digestive disease called GERD, but they are not aware of its potential dangers or effective treatment options. Even though 25 million Americans experience acid indigestion every day, very few of these people actually consult their physicians. GERD is a condition in which acid from the stomach flows backward, or refluxes, into the esophagus. The esophagus is the long tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. Inside your body, a “valve” at the lower end of the esophagus called the Lower Esophageal Sphincter, or LES for short, keeps acid in the stomach and out of the esophagus. For many reasons, this “valve” relaxes too much and allows stomach acid to reflux into the esophagus.
The Burn in Heartburn
Heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD and usually feels like a burning chest pain beginning behind the breastbone and moving upward to the neck and throat. Many people say it feels like food is coming back into the mouth and leaves an acid or bitter taste.
The burning pain of heartburn can last as long as 2 hours and is often worse after eating. The pain results when the lining of the esophagus comes in contact with too much stomach acid for a long time. This stomach acid is found with other harmful chemicals.
Symptoms of GERD can vary and sometimes there may be no sign of damage or risks for developing complications. The condition is so common that it is often either self-treated or not treated correctly.
What is even more surprising is that acid produced from occasional heartburn can reflux (flow backwards) and cause chest pain that may feel like a heart attack. This can also cause symptoms of asthma such as chest tightness, chronic coughing and wheezing and in some people even hoarseness and difficulty swallowing. For people who have asthma, GERD may worsen the symptoms. However, some people may have fewer asthma attacks or may need less asthma medication if their chronic heartburn, or GERD, is effectively treated. Only your doctor can decide if you need less medication.
What Can I Do Now?
In many cases, changes daily in living and medicines can help. Here is a list of things you can do to help:
- Avoid foods and beverages like chocolate, coffee, alcohol and soda as they can relax the “valve”. You can also avoid peppermint, greasy, spicy or tomato based foods.
- If you smoke, then stop. Tobacco causes less saliva to form and saliva helps against stomach acid. Tobacco may also increase stomach acid.
- If you are overweight, then lose those extra pounds.
- If you eat very large meals, then eat smaller meals throughout the day
- Do not eat 2-3 hours before sleeping.
- Elevate the head of your bed by 6-10 inches. The easiest way to do this may be using casters or maybe an under mattress foam wedge. Placing more pillows under your head is not a way to prevent reflux.
- Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing and belts.
Chronic Heartburn Is No Joke
GERD is a serious problem and often times require long-term treatment. GERD can cause a condition called esophagitis, or inflammation of the esophagus. Esophagitis can cause bleeding or ulcers in the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. Heartburn that has occurred for a period of at least 5 years or trouble swallowing may be a sign of a more serious problem. Symptoms that may be a sign that serious damage may have already occurred are:
- Trouble swallowing or a feeling that food is trapped behind the breastbone
- Vomiting blood or having dark, black bowel movements
- Choking or shortness of breath, coughing or hoarseness of your voice
- Weight loss
People with a long history of heartburn are at a greater risk for problems like narrowing of the esophagus or even a potential pre-cancerous disease known as Barrett’s esophagus. Fortunately, the number of people who develop Barrett’s esophagus is relatively small. Likewise, in the absence of Barrett’s, there is no strong evidence that GERD is a risk factor for developing cancer.
Your Trusted Pharmacist
Visit your doctor or pharmacist for more information on chronic heartburn, or GERD. Treatment is available and only your doctor can diagnose GERD. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) medicine and changes to your daily living. If so, then visit your local pharmacy for the proper selection of these medications. There are many choices available to select. What is even more puzzling is that your choice may not be the right one for you. Your pharmacist knows about your illness, drug and disease interactions and can help you decide. If your doctor orders prescription medicine with or without surgery, your friendly pharmacist can provide information on side effects and helpful tips to get the most benefit from your medications. So put an end to the discomfort and avoid serious complications from this common problem.
By Shenier Marks, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, 2003 Health Sciences Center, University of Colorado Denver, Colorado
© 2002 Consumer Health Information Corporation. All rights reserved.