When GERD Gets Complicated: Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Reflux
Though the pain of heartburn can make acid reflux difficult to ignore, many people suffer from GERD symptoms for years without seeking treatment, believing the problem to be fleeting or relatively harmless. While it’s true that gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) alone isn’t typically a serious threat to our health, it can lead to more dangerous and uncomfortable complications if left untreated for long enough.
GERD is characterized by frequent backwash of stomach acid into the esophagus. This is what causes the pain of heartburn, but this corrosive acid can also start to damage esophagus and other parts of the body over time. As a result, long-term GERD sufferers can be at a higher risk of problems like:
You may have noticed a sour taste in your mouth as a result of acid reflux, and this is a sign that digestive fluids have reached your mouth. When this happens often, it can start to wear down tooth enamel and lead to tooth decay. Typically, this effect isn’t obvious until it starts to cause serious damage, but one study from the University of Alabama found that 40 percent of GERD sufferers experienced significant tooth decay.
Though the exact relationship between GERD and asthma is not exactly clear, people with asthma are significantly more likely to also suffer from GERD, and GERD can make asthma worse. This may be because acid flowing into the throat and lungs makes it difficult to inhale and frequently causes a bad cough. Acid in the esophagus may also cause a reflex that narrows the airways to keep acid out, which can result in shortness of breath.
Consistent exposure to stomach acid can start to cause abnormal changes to the esophageal lining. In someone who has Barrett’s esophagus, the tissue lining the esophagus is replaced by tissue that more closely resembles the lining of the intestines. Though Barrett’s esophagus does not cause any noticeable symptoms, it does cause a small increase in the risk of esophageal cancer.
Over time, stomach acid exposure can cause inflammation and irritation in the esophagus that leads to the formation of scar tissue. This scar tissue can narrow the passage of the esophagus, making it more difficult or painful to swallow. Stricture can cause food to become stuck in your throat and increase the risk of choking.
Many people occasionally experience acid reflux, but it can lead to much more concerning issues if it becomes chronic. If you’ve been living with GERD, seeking out treatment can help you feel better and avoid the complications above.