by Olivia DeLong
This article was originally published on Sharecare.
Acid reflux is the backward flow of stomach acid through the esophagus, the organ that joins the throat and stomach. Typical symptoms include a sour-tasting liquid towards the back of your throat and a burning sensation in your chest, otherwise known as heartburn. More extreme symptoms, like frequent heartburn and chronic coughing may be the signs of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
The most important thing to remember about acid reflux is to see your doctor if symptoms occur regularly, or if they’re extreme. Most can be helped by lifestyle changes like exercise and weight management. Gastroenterologist Naresh Gunaratnam, MD, of Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Michigan explains three acid reflux symptoms to watch out for, plus easy ways to lower your risk and get relief.
If you’re having heartburn, the main symptom of acid reflux, more than twice a week, Gunaratnam says you may have GERD, or heartburn that needs medical attention. It’s best to seek treatment so you can get your symptoms under control. This even goes for people who have had acid reflux symptoms for years without treating them.
“The problem with uncontrolled reflux is that it can lead to Barrett’s esophagus, which is a pre-cancerous condition,” says Gunaratnam. In this condition, tissue similar to the inside of your intestine lining replaces the lining of your esophagus. “If left untreated, it can cause problems with swallowing or progress to cancer of the esophagus, or esophageal adenocarcinoma.”
Chest pain is sometimes associated with acid reflux; it happens when acid creeps higher and stays in your esophagus. But chalking recurrent chest pain up to acid reflux could be dangerous. “Chest pain could actually be a heart attack,” says Dr. Gunaratnam.
Typically, chest pain from a heart attack feels like tightening, rather than burning. Pain can also spread to your jaw, arm or shoulders, and could bring nausea, dizziness, sweating or a racing heartbeat. If you feel like you’re having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately.
Chronic coughing and hoarseness
Acid can also edge its way up to your vocal chords, causing you to cough or your voice to become hoarse. “Coughing and hoarseness means that the acid has gone to other parts of the body besides the esophagus, and we call this atypical manifestation of gastroesophageal reflux disease.” says Gunaratnam.
Voice problems caused by acid reflux could mean you have GERD. And the acid in your lungs and throat even cause asthma or repeated cases of pneumonia. If you do develop one of these conditions, you and your doctor will work together to come up with a treatment plan.
3 ways to take control of acid reflux
Acid reflux is manageable once you understand what’s causing it. Here’s how you can address common sources of reflux—and start feeling better today:
- Exercise regularly: Extra pounds increase your risk of reflux; keep your weight in check with exercise. Low-impact workouts like elliptical exercise, yoga, walking and swimming won’t aggravate your digestive tract, and great picks for those with acid reflux. Be sure to wait about two or three hours before working out after eating.
- Eat right. Avoid reflux triggers like fatty foods, alcohol, chocolate, coffee and spicy meals. Try not to eat—or worse, overeat—too close to bedtime; it’s best to stop snacking two to three hours before.
- Talk to your doctor about over-the counter medications. To reduce acid production, your healthcare provider may recommend H2 blockers like famotidine or ranitidine, or proton pump inhibitors like esomeprazole or lansoprazole. Antacids can relieve symptoms, too, but you should only use them as directed, and under medical supervision. Why? “A lot of people call a lot of things reflux even though they’re not really reflux,” says Gunaratnam. And if your medications aren’t helping your symptoms or you need to take them more than a couple of weeks, see your healthcare provider.
The bottom line? Many times, acid reflux is completely benign, but it’s important to see your healthcare provider if you have frequent or severe symptoms, since letting them linger can lead to serious health conditions down the road.