GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic digestive disease that occurs when stomach acid or, occasionally, bile flows back (refluxes) into your food pipe (esophagus). The backwash of acid irritates the lining of your esophagus and causes GERD signs and symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of GERD include acid reflux and heartburn. Both are common digestive conditions that many people experience from time to time. When these signs and symptoms occur at least twice each week or interfere with your daily life, doctors call this GERD.
Most people can manage the discomfort of heartburn with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. But for people with GERD, these remedies may offer only temporary relief. People with GERD signs and symptoms include:
- A burning sensation in your chest (heartburn), sometimes spreading to the throat, along with a sour taste in your mouth
- Chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Dry cough
- Hoarseness or sore throat
- Regurgitation of food or sour liquid (acid reflux)
- Sensation of a lump in the throat
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience chest pain, especially when accompanied by other signs and symptoms, such as shortness of breath or jaw or arm pain. These may be signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience severe or frequent GERD symptoms. If you take over-the-counter medications for heartburn more than twice per week, see your doctor.
ERD may need stronger medications, even surgery, to reduce symptoms.
Conditions that can increase your risk of GERD include:
- Hiatal hernia
- Dry mouth
- Delayed stomach emptying
- Connective tissue disorders, such as scleroderma
- Zollinger-Ellison syndrome
If you’re bothered by frequent heartburn or other signs and symptoms, your doctor may be able to diagnose GERD with that information alone. Your doctor may also suggest tests and procedures used to diagnose GERD, including:
- An X-ray of your upper digestive system. Sometimes called a barium swallow or upper GI series, this procedure involves drinking a chalky liquid that coats and fills the inside lining of your digestive tract. Then X-rays are taken of your upper digestive tract. The coating allows your doctor to see a silhouette of the shape and condition of your esophagus, stomach and upper intestine (duodenum).
- Passing a flexible tube down your throat. Endoscopy is a way to visually examine the inside of your esophagus. During endoscopy, your doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube equipped with a light and camera (endoscope) down your throat. The endoscope allows your doctor to examine your esophagus and stomach. Your doctor may also use endoscopy to collect a sample of tissue (biopsy) for further testing. Endoscopy is useful in looking for complications of reflux, such as Barrett’s esophagus.
- A test to monitor the amount of acid in your esophagus. Ambulatory acid (pH) probe tests use an acid-measuring device to identify when, and for how long, stomach acid regurgitates into your esophagus. The acid monitor can be a thin, flexible tube (catheter) that’s threaded through your nose into your esophagus. During the test, the tube stays in place and connects to a small computer that you wear around your waist or with a strap over your shoulder. Or the acid monitor can be a clip that’s placed in your esophagus during endoscopy. The probe transmits a signal to a small computer that you wear around your waist for about two days, and then the probe falls off to be passed in your stool. Your doctor may ask that you stop taking GERD medications to prepare for this test.
- A test to measure the movement of the esophagus. Esophageal motility testing measures movement and pressure in the esophagus. The test involves placing a catheter through your nose and into your esophagus.
Treatment for heartburn and other signs and symptoms of GERD usually begins with over-the-counter medications that control acid. If you don’t experience relief within a few weeks, your doctor may recommend other treatments, including medications and surgery.