May 28, 2023

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If you ever feel a burning sensation in your throat, typically following a large or indulgent meal, you may be experiencing acid reflux, a common digestive condition in which stomach acid comes back through the esophagus and causes discomfort.
However, just because acid reflux is a common condition doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done about the discomfort it causes. There are a variety of lifestyle modifications that can help alleviate symptoms, along with both over-the-counter and prescription medications. In some severe cases, surgery may be an option. Read on to learn more about acid reflux and what treatment options are available.
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Acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux (GER), is the result of stomach contents, such as stomach acid or bile, coming back up into the esophagus. These contents irritate the esophagus and can cause a burning sensation in the chest (also known as heartburn) or at the center of the stomach, says Anju Malieckal, M.D., a dual board-certified gastroenterologist in New York City and assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “It can also make it difficult to swallow or even cause a sore throat,” she says. Some people may experience chest pain and coughing, among other problems.
Stomach acid itself is not harmful; it plays a vital role in breaking down the food for digestion. “Typically, this acid stays contained in the stomach and does not harm or damage any of the surrounding tissue,” says Dr. Malieckal. However, when that stomach acid escapes the lower esophageal sphincter (a muscle that separates the esophagus from the stomach) and travels up the esophagus, it causes acid reflux.
The terms acid reflux, heartburn and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) are often used interchangeably, but they don’t refer to the same condition, says Vanessa Méndez, M.D., a triple board-certified gastroenterologist and founder of Planted Forward, a multi-specialty integrative telemedicine practice.
“Acid reflux is very common among the general population and can range from mild to serious,” says Dr. Méndez. “It usually comes and goes but in some, it can persist and be debilitating.” Symptoms of acid reflux can include sore throat, sour or dry mouth, heartburn, trouble swallowing, nausea or vomiting and chest pain, she adds.
Heartburn, meanwhile, refers specifically to a burning sensation in your esophagus and is often caused by acid reflux or, she says, but it’s also possible to feel it when there’s no acid reflux occurring.
GERD, is a severe form of acid reflux that’s a chronic condition. GERD can be due to a weakened lower esophageal sphincter, or if the lower esophageal sphincter is relaxing when it shouldn’t. Common causes of GERD include being overweight, having obesity, being pregnant, smoking and/or inhaling second-hand smoke. GERD can be symptomatic or asymptomatic, says Dr. Méndez. If symptomatic, GERD’s symptoms are largely the same as those of acid reflux, but longer lasting and can lead to other complications. A third of adults in the United States experience GERD, according to a 2019 nationwide study by Cedars-Sinai[1].
Acid reflux, on its own, isn’t necessarily a problem. Experiencing a brief reflux episode after eating is perfectly normal, says Dr. Méndez. In fact, this often happens without us knowing or experiencing any symptoms. However, if it’s happening frequently or to the point where you’re dealing with irritation in the esophagus due to excess acid, consider speaking to a doctor to determine the cause.
The most common causes of acid reflux include diets that are high in fat and processed foods, alcohol consumption, smoking, having a hiatal hernia (a condition where the upper part of the stomach moves into the chest through an opening in the diaphragm), and having obesity (specifically in the midsection), says Dr. Méndez. Foods that can trigger acid reflux include peppermint, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, milk, citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, and foods that are spicy and high in fat. A person’s age can also play a role in acid reflux. “As we age, the shape of our spine may curve, causing our posture to change, which can also contribute to acid reflux,” says Dr. Malieckal..
If you’re experiencing acid reflux regularly after meals, keeping a list of what you’re eating and your body’s reactions to those foods. This will make it easier to identify the foods that trigger your acid reflux, even if they’re less common culprits. “A gastroenterologist can help evaluate your symptoms, and if needed, a registered dietitian can improve your diet,” she adds.
Another common cause of acid reflux is pregnancy. “Although acid reflux can happen at any time during pregnancy due to hormonal changes, most women complain of this symptom later in the pregnancy as the baby grows bigger and pushes up against the digestive organs,” says Dr. Méndez.
Symptoms of acid reflux and GERD can range from mild to debilitating. A burning sensation in your chest that radiates toward your mouth (heartburn) and is sometimes worse at night can be common. However, other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty swallowing, feeling like there’s a lump in your throat, and regurgitation may also occur. Acid reflux can cause symptoms like a chronic cough, the need to clear your throat frequently, loss of voice, asthma and poor sleep. Chronic nausea or vomiting may also occur.
Occasional acid reflux doesn’t always warrant an immediate visit to your doctor, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore symptoms—particularly if they’re persistent and don’t improve with lifestyle changes and/or over-the-counter medication.
Contact your health care provider if you experience difficulty swallowing (liquids and/or solids), food impaction (meaning your food gets stuck in the esophagus), unintentional weight loss, nausea and/or vomiting, suggests Dr. Malieckal.
“It’s important to note that these symptoms can be present during a heart attack, and therefore it’s important to speak to your doctor to get the correct workup,” says Dr. Méndez.
Your doctor will likely begin with a thorough evaluation of your symptoms, medications and supplements, along any diet and lifestyle habits. In more severe cases, your doctor may recommend an endoscopy, a procedure in which a small camera is attached to a probe and used to look at your esophagus from the inside while you’re asleep, adds Dr. Méndez. This is done to see inflammation and other signs of damage. Your doctor may order a biopsy during the endoscopy if further analysis is needed for bacteria, inflammation and/or signs of cancer found during the procedure, adds Dr. Malieckal.
A less invasive swallow study in which a patient drinks contrast and is then X-rayed, can also be used to diagnose acid reflux or GERD.
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Once you are diagnosed with acid reflux or GERD, you can move forward in finding the most appropriate treatment option. Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can help reduce symptoms, including changes to your diet and lifestyle.
Before resorting to medications, Dr. Méndez recommends trying lifestyle changes. “The standard Western diet we see so often consumed in America is high in saturated fat and ultra processed foods,” she says. Paired with common lifestyle choices like sitting for long periods of time (which can lead to weight gain and obesity), these factors can contribute to acid reflux. “Those risk factors coupled with other habits like smoking and drinking further add fuel to the fire when it comes to the burden of acid reflux and heartburn,” adds Dr. Méndez.
Additional recommendations to help prevent and heal from acid reflux include:
Medications can also help reduce acid reflux symptoms when lifestyle changes aren’t effective.
“Your doctor may start with Tums or Pepcid as acid blockers,” says Dr. Méndez. If necessary, stronger medications like proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which include omeprazole (such as Prilosec) may be prescribed. “These medications are meant to be taken short-term to provide relief and as you work with your doctor to get to the root cause of your issues,” she notes.
Other medications your doctor may suggest include histamine blockers and anti-gas medications, adds Dr. Malieckal.
“If all other options have been exhausted, surgery is available to those who need it,” says Dr. Méndez. “A Nissen fundoplication is performed in severe cases to reverse GERD by tightening the pathway between the esophagus and the stomach via a sphincter.”
For patients with a hernia (which can be seen on a swallow study, endoscopy or CAT scan), there’s also a surgical option to repair the hernia and treat acid reflux, says Dr. Malieckal.
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Kristen Seymour has spent the last 15 years or so creating and editing content for various publications including USA Today, AOL, Triathlete Magazine, Women’s Running and the body positive website Fit Bottomed Girls, where she’s a co-owner. She’s held USAT Level 1 and USMS Adult Learn-to-Swim certifications, been named as one of the top 100 influencers in health and fitness by Greatist, and was recently awarded her local track club’s volunteer of the year award. In her spare time, Kristen enjoys being outdoors and active, which might mean doing a yoga session at her local beach in Sarasota, Florida; hiking new trails with her husband; or dancing to her favorite ’90s tunes with her dog—or anyone who’s not too embarrassed to join her, really.
Dr. Bass is a diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, with a sub-specialization in Gastroenterology and Hepatology. He believes technology can transform the current landscape of healthcare. He’s the medical director of Oshi Health, a venture-backed virtual care startup that provides comprehensive gastroenterological care. In addition, he’s had advisory roles in multiple med-tech startups. His clinical research focuses on wireless-capsule endoscopy and its growing application in the field. Dr. Bass maintains a thriving private practice based in Delaware. He values his daily interactions with patients and believes that the only way to build technology that makes a difference is through a deep understanding of patient pain points.


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