Acid Reflux Can Become Serious: The Warning Signs

By Gregory Lam, DO

It’s one thing if the meals you eat give you a sour feeling. It’s a red flag if they’re also hard to swallow.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders affecting adults today. An estimated one in five people live with the symptoms, but it’s possible many more have the condition and have not had it professionally diagnosed. Instead, these folks might rely on antacids and other drug store medications for relief.

Not seeing a doctor, however, can lead to serious health issues, including cancer.

Just because GERD is common, that doesn’t make it harmless. By simply understanding what causes GERD, you could recognize the potential severity of your symptoms and pursue a targeted diagnosis and treatment.

GERD for Beginners

The esophagus is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. If the valve at the base of the esophagus weakens, it won’t be able to hold back stomach contents very well, making it easier for food and stomach acids to back up into the esophagus.

This backwash, if persistent, will irritate your esophagus lining and cause it to become inflamed. Common symptoms, outside of a sour taste in your mouth, include a burning sensation in the chest, burping, and a chronic sore throat or cough.

Risk conditions of GERD include connective tissue disorders, hernia of the upper stomach, and excess weight. Aggravators include certain foods, such as fatty or fried meals, and medications.

How Do I Know If My GERD Symptoms Are Urgent?

We consider the following GERD symptoms to be the red flags of a serious underlying condition.

Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) – If you regularly find it difficult to swallow, it may be due to a narrowed throat, an ulceration, and/or a cancerous tumor. In particular, dysphagia is a symptom of Barrett’s esophagus, a complication from long-term GERD that can increase the risk of esophageal cancer by causing abnormalities in your esophagus’ tissue lining. Dysphagia is more common among those older than 50.

Painful swallowing – Chronic discomfort while swallowing might indicate the same complications as dysphagia, such as ulcers. It also can be the result of a yeast infection called candida, which begins in the mouth and can spread to the esophagus. Note that radiation treatments for cancer and certain prescription medications can cause painful swallowing that is not GERD-related.

Chronic coughing and chest pain – When combined with other symptoms such as dysphagia, a chronic cough might indicate Barrett’s esophagus. You can tell a GERD cough because it is dry and tends to occur after meals and at night. With Barrett’s esophagus, the cough might have similar traits, but be more severe. Note: Nearly half of people diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus report the typical symptoms of GERD.

Bloody vomit – Heaving up blood (either red or that looks like coffee grounds) is a sign of severe GERD, Barrett’s esophagus, and/or esophagitis – an inflammation of the esophagus lining. Left untreated, esophagitis can lead to scarring, ulcers, and anemia. (Esophagitis also can be caused by an immune disorder called eosinophilic esophagitis, which is associated with food and environmental allergies.)

What To Do If You Suspect GERD

If you’ve been experiencing persistent signs of acid reflux, heartburn, and food regurgitation, it’s probably time to consult a doctor. If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms and have already been diagnosed with GERD, you should get checked quickly for possible complications.

The most common test for GERD is performed through an upper endoscopy, a procedure in which a thin tube equipped with a tiny camera is inserted into the throat to examine the esophagus and stomach. Depending on the results, other tests may follow.

Your physician will provide guidance for relief, including changes to your diet and medications. Surgical options also are available.

But first things first – talk to your gastroenterologist about your symptoms, so you can make informed choices. The sooner you do so, the more likely your treatment will be easy to swallow.

Want to know more? Learn more about the symptoms and treatments for GERD and Barrett’s esophagus. To request an appointment, click here.