Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid gets into the lower part of the esophagus. The stomach is lined with a protective mucosal lining that prevents the stomach from being damaged by its own digestive juices; when there is a disruption in this stomach lining, a stomach ulcer may result. The esophagus does not have this protective lining, so when stomach acid flows back into the lower esophagus, heartburn can result.
Acid reflux happens to most people occasionally and it is not necessarily a problem. Heartburn feels like an uncomfortable burning in the chest. Sometimes the pain of heartburn is more sharp than a dull burning sensation, however. In these cases, heartburn may be confused with the pain from a heart attack. Heartburn usually occurs after eating a meal. If you experience heartburn frequently, however, you should talk to your doctor. Over time, acid reflux can damage the lining of the esophagus. This condition is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
Heartburn is not the only possible symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease. People with GERD may be able to taste stomach acid or may regurgitate stomach acid into their throat or mouth, especially if lying down after eating a meal. Acid reflux may also cause chronic bad breath. Some people with GERD may experience nausea after eating a meal. Symptoms caused by the chronic acid reflux associated with GERD include a sore throat, laryngitis, a hoarse voice, swallowing problems, feeling like the throat is swollen and coughing.
Untreated GERD can cause additional problems over time. Formation of scar tissue in the esophagus can cause increased difficulty with swallowing. Ulceration of the esophagus can be painful, cause swallowing difficulties and in some cases may bleed. Over time, the damage that GERD causes to the esophageal tissue can also increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer. These changes to the esophageal lining are known as “Barrett’s esophagus.” Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that does not guarantee that a person will develop esophageal cancer, but it is something that should be monitored with screening procedures such as a regular endoscopy.
It is recommended that people who experience heartburn twice a week or more talk to their doctor about managing their acid reflux. GERD is a treatable condition, and getting treatment reduces discomfort, allows the esophagus to heal and prevents future complications.