Your body has a way of telling you when you’ve eaten more than your stomach can handle: Abdominal pain, bloating, and belching are quick to follow, along with a burning sensation in your chest and throat and the unpleasant taste of acid in your mouth.
While virtually everyone experiences heartburn and acid reflux every now and then, people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) experience acid indigestion on a routine basis.
For the 65 million people in the United States who live with GERD, or chronic acid reflux, the problem isn’t just disruptive and uncomfortable, it’s also potentially dangerous — over time, GERD can give rise to the kind of long-standing inflammation that damages your esophagus and increases your risk of throat cancer. Here’s what you should know.
GERD is a persistent condition that occurs when stomach acids and digestive juices frequently flow up into your esophagus, or the tube at the back of your throat that connects your mouth to your stomach.
As this backflow of acid rises up through your chest and into your throat, you may experience intense heartburn, an irritating sensation in your throat, or an acidic taste at the back of your mouth that leaves you with bad breath, a dry cough, or a hoarse voice.
When a bite of food or some liquid slides down your esophagus, it passes through a round band of muscle (lower esophageal sphincter) before entering your stomach. This sphincter relaxes as food and liquid go toward your stomach, and then closes to keep those contents from “spilling” upward or back out.
Stomach acid can surge upward if your lower esophageal sphincter is dysfunctional, weak, or relaxes when it shouldn’t. The frequent backwash of acid that occurs with GERD can irritate the tissues that line your esophagus and leave your throat in a perpetual state of inflammation.
GERD and your esophagus
Left untreated, GERD can have a deep and lasting impact on your throat — that uncomfortable burning sensation you feel each time you experience a reflux episode is actually a symptom of acid damage in the lining of your esophagus.
If your esophagus is repeatedly exposed to acidic digestive juices, chronic bouts of irritation and injury can give rise to esophagitis, a persistent inflammatory condition that weakens the lining of your throat and leaves it more susceptible to erosion, painful ulcers, and scar tissue.
If you have esophagitis and your GERD symptoms aren’t brought under control, continued esophageal damage can lead to a variety of severe complications, including:
Recurrent acid reflux can wear holes in the delicate tissues that line your esophagus, leading to the development of open sores called ulcers. Besides causing pain, esophageal ulcers can bleed and make it more difficult to swallow.
Repeated acid exposure can give rise to scar tissue along the inner lining of your esophagus. As scar tissue builds up over time, it can cause a significant narrowing of the food pathway that makes swallowing a challenge.
Persistent GERD can lead to the formation of prominent tissue folds, or bands, in the lower esophagus that compress the tube and make it harder for food to pass through.
When stomach acid routinely makes its way past your upper esophagus and into your mouth, some of that acid may make its way down your windpipe and into your lungs. Known as laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), this condition may generate a dry, persistent cough, chronic sore throat, partial voice loss (hoarseness), or complete short-term voice loss (laryngitis).
Long-term exposure to stomach acid can cause the cells in your esophageal lining to become more like the cells that line your small intestine. Known as Barrett’s esophagus, this relatively rare condition can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Whether you’ve already been diagnosed with GERD or you simply have frequent heartburn, it’s important to have a comprehensive throat evaluation to check the health of your esophagus.
Depending on the nature of your symptoms and how long you’ve been having them, Dr. Kumra may look for signs of inflammation, erosion, and narrowing; she may also check for the kind of cellular changes that increase your risk of developing throat cancer.
The main goal of any GERD treatment plan is to reduce or eliminate acid reflux symptoms so your esophagus can heal and you can avoid serious complications. Luckily, most cases of GERD respond well to dietary changes, weight loss, smoking cessation, and other strategic lifestyle modifications.
If you’re ready to get GERD under control, the team at ENT New York can help. Call our New York City office today, or click online to schedule a visit with Dr. Kumra any time.