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    How Chronic Heartburn Can Lead to Serious Health Problems

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    Heartburn is a common symptom that many people experience from time to time. It occurs when acid from the stomach flows back into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest or throat. But what if heartburn happens more than twice a week and interferes with your daily life? You may have a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can damage your esophagus and increase your risk of other complications.

    stomach, health, diet

    GERD is not a temporary problem caused by diet or lifestyle. It is a chronic disease that occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a ring of muscle that acts as a valve between the esophagus and the stomach, does not close properly or relaxes too often. This allows stomach acid and sometimes bile to reflux into the esophagus, irritating and inflaming its lining.

    According to Mayo Clinic, some of the common signs and symptoms of GERD include:

    • A burning sensation in your chest (heartburn), usually after eating, which might be worse at night or while lying down
    • Backwash (regurgitation) of food or sour liquid
    • Upper abdominal or chest pain
    • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
    • Sensation of a lump in your throat

    If you have nighttime acid reflux, you might also experience:

    • An ongoing cough
    • Inflammation of the vocal cords (laryngitis)
    • New or worsening asthma

    Some factors that can aggravate acid reflux include:

    • Smoking
    • Eating large meals or eating late at night
    • Eating certain foods (triggers) such as fatty or fried foods
    • Drinking certain beverages, such as alcohol or coffee
    • Taking certain medications, such as aspirin

    If left untreated, GERD can lead to serious complications over time, such as:

    • Esophagitis: inflammation, bleeding, or ulcers of the esophagus
    • Esophageal strictures: narrowing of the esophagus due to scar tissue, making it difficult to swallow
    • Barrett’s esophagus: precancerous changes in the cells of the esophagus, increasing the risk of esophageal cancer
    • Oral problems: tooth decay, enamel erosion, and darkening of the teeth due to excess acid in the mouth
    • Aspiration pneumonia: lung infection caused by inhaling acid into the lungs

    The good news is that GERD can be treated with lifestyle changes, medications, and sometimes surgery. Some of the lifestyle changes that can help reduce acid reflux include:

    • Losing weight if you are overweight or obese
    • Avoiding foods and drinks that trigger your symptoms
    • Eating smaller and more frequent meals
    • Raising the head of your bed by 6 inches or using a wedge pillow
    • Not lying down for at least three hours after eating
    • Wearing loose-fitting clothing

    Some of the medications that can help control acid production and heal the esophagus include:

    • Antacids: over-the-counter drugs that neutralize stomach acid, such as Tums or Rolaids
    • H2 blockers: prescription drugs that reduce acid production, such as ranitidine (Zantac) or famotidine (Pepcid)
    • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): prescription drugs that block acid production and allow the esophagus to heal, such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or lansoprazole (Prevacid)

    Some people may need surgery or other procedures to strengthen the LES or create a barrier against reflux. These include:

    • Fundoplication: a surgical procedure that wraps the upper part of the stomach around the LES to reinforce it and prevent reflux
    • LINX device: a ring of tiny magnetic beads that is placed around the LES to keep it closed when not swallowing
    • Endoscopic techniques: minimally invasive procedures that use heat, radiofrequency waves, or stitches to tighten the LES or create scar tissue

    If you have chronic heartburn or suspect you have GERD, don’t ignore your symptoms. See your doctor for diagnosis and treatment. GERD can be managed with proper care and prevent further damage to your esophagus and overall health.

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