Health Complications of GERD
If left untreated, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can cause chronic acid reflux, exposing the esophagus and other structures in the throat and upper airway to corrosive stomach fluids. Over time, this can result in tissue damage and medical complications.
For most people, acid reflux and heartburn do not cause serious complications and are merely an occasional source of discomfort. However, in those with GERD who experience these symptoms more frequently, stomach acid can cause more serious health problems as it moves into and past the esophagus.
How GERD Damages the Body
When refluxed liquid enters the esophagus, it can burn the cells lining the esophagus. The body responds with inflammation, or esophagitis, which is a part of the body’s natural healing process.
As acid exposure and inflammation continue, a break in the esophageal tissue can occur, leading to bleeding and open sores called ulcers. When these ulcers heal and form scars, this scar tissue can shrink the passageway through the esophagus. This narrowed area is called a stricture and can cause difficulty swallowing.
Acid reflux can also stimulate the nerves in the lower esophagus, causing chronic coughing and asthma attacks. Approximately 80 percent of cases of adult onset asthma are recognized as reflux-oriented.
If GERD is severe or persists for several years, acid exposure can cause abnormal changes in the cells lining the esophagus. As normal cells are replaced with cells that resemble those in the intestines or stomach, a condition called Barrett’s esophagus develops, which is associated with a slight increase in the risk of esophageal cancer.
If refluxed liquids move past the esophagus, they can begin to cause damage in other structures, resulting in complications like:
Throat and Larynx Inflammation
When refluxed liquid passes through the barrier at the top of the esophagus, it can move into the throat (pharynx) and voice box (larynx). This can result in inflammation that causes sore throat and hoarseness.
Lung Infections and Pulmonary Fibrosis
Once refluxed liquid passes the larynx, it can enter the lungs, which can result in lung infections and pneumonia. Eventually, contact with this corrosive liquid may lead to pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of the lungs that leads to progressively worse shortness of breath.
When refluxed stomach acid reaches the mouth, it can wear down tooth enamel. This can result in significant damage to your teeth over time.
If you believe you may be experiencing any of the complications above, it is important to seek medical treatment. Treatment for GERD can control acid reflux to reduce your risk of complications and prevent further damage.