Got heartburn? Protect yourself against GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a chronic digestive problem that occurs when stomach acid or stomach content flows back into your esophagus, the food pipe that connects your mouth and stomach. That backwash from the stomach irritates the lining of the esophagus and causes inflammation.

Lots of people have experienced the unpleasant sensation of heartburn or acid indigestion, metallic taste in their throat and regurgitation when food comes up because the mechanism to keep it down is weakened. It’s estimated that 10-20 percent of adults in the U.S. have GERD. More than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month. More than 15 million adults suffer heartburn daily.

People who are obese are far more likely to have GERD. So are pregnant women.

Symptoms tend to be worse at night, when people lay flat.

Triggers can include coffee, chocolate, tomatoes, fried, fatty or spicy foods, peppermint, citrus foods and alcohol, especially drinks mixed with cranberry juice or orange juice.

But GERD is more than just discomfort. Over time, the effects of reflux can cause changes in the cells of the esophagus, which doesn’t have the same protection against acid that the stomach does.

In some cases, GERD can lead to esophageal cancer. That’s why it’s important to know the warning signs of GERD, as well as ways to prevent it.

GERD can have unusual symptoms that you may not associate with gastrointestinal problems. Hoarseness is caused from aerosolized acid that escapes from the stomach to the throat. Ear infections and pneumonia are other less-common symptoms.

If you think you have GERD, don’t try to treat it yourself with over-the-counter antacids and other medications. Talk to a doctor who can advise you on behavioral changes, as well as the proper way to take medications.

For chronic reflux and heartburn, doctors often recommend medicine like proton pump inhibitors or HR blockers. Proton pump inhibitors work by inhibiting an enzyme needed for acid secretion. They include esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid), omeprazole (Prilosec), pantoprazole (Protonix), rabeprazole (Aciphex), dexlansoprazole (Dexilant) and omeprazole/sodium bicarbonate (Zegerid). H2 blockers reduce acid secretion in the stomach. They include cimetidine (Tagamet), famotidine (Pepcid), nizatidine (Axid) and ranitidine (Zantac).

Behaviors matter, too. Smoking contributes to reflux, and it has many other harmful health effects — so if you smoke, quit now.

Losing weight can reduce or eliminate GERD symptoms. Instead of three hearty meals a day, try five smaller meals. Avoid soda, and drink lots of water. And don’t eat anything for two to four hours before bedtime.

Sometimes, surgery provides a solution for severe cases of GERD. At Christiana Care, we offer a variety of anti-reflux surgeries. This includes LINX, a small, flexible band of magnets that allows the muscle between the esophagus and stomach to open when you are eating but doesn’t allow acid to come back up. Patients can sleep flat the same night as their surgery and resume their normal activities within a week.

If you have symptoms of GERD, talk to your doctor. You don’t have to suffer with heartburn and acid reflux.