Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) - Symptoms, Treatment & Causes
Written By: Dr. Abtan Ahmad Al-Talafih
Dr. Abtan Ahmad Al-Talafih is an expert in Gastroenterology & is recognised by the European Board of Gastroenterology & Hepatology.
Updated On:September 30, 2021
What is GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)?
GERD occurs when acid from the stomach flows back into the tube that runs from your mouth to the stomach. The tube is called the esophagus. GERD stands for Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. Doctors diagnose it as a digestive disorder. The esophagus is sometimes called the food pipe or gullet. It is about eight inches long. When someone has GERD the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES), doesn’t work properly, which means food & drink flow back from the stomach into the esophagus, throat & mouth.
Causes of GERD
GERD is caused by frequent acid reflux. Under normal conditions, our lower esophageal sphincter opens up to allow food into the stomach, then shuts to stop food & highly acidic stomach juices from flowing back into the esophagus.
GERD happens when the LES is weakened or relaxes when it shouldn’t, allowing semi-digested food & acidic stomach juices up into the esophagus.
Causes of GERD include:
- Being pregnant
- Passive smoking
- Side effects of certain medications
While acid reflux is a similar condition to GERD, with many similar symptoms, severe acid reflux leads to GERD.
Signs & Symptoms of GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)
One of the signs of GERD is severe heartburn – also called acid reflux & sometimes known as acid indigestion.
Common Signs & Symptoms of GERD manifest as:
- Heartburn & often discomfort in the chest
- Regurgitation of food or sour liquid
- Difficulty swallowing
- Breathing difficulties
- Sleep problems
- Chest pain, wheezing & coughing - especially when lying down at night
- Nausea & vomiting
- Bad breath
- Laryngitis (inflammation of the voice box)
Who can get GERD?
This condition can affect anyone. GERD symptoms are common in both men & women, but studies suggest there is a higher prevalence of GERD among women. It is believed GERD affects around 20 percent of people in the US. Old age is a key factor in suffering from GERD, as muscles grow weaker. While millions of us suffer from heartburn every day, GERD is less common, especially in children under 12. GERD in children is often caused by previous surgery or developmental delays.
GERD in Infants
Evidence shows that globally, around two-thirds of four-month-old babies have GERD symptoms, while up to ten percent of one-year-old infants are affected by it. Babies can often vomit or bring up food. However, should this happen more regularly, it could be that the child is suffering from GERD.
Further symptoms & signs of GERD to look out for in infants include:
- Refusing to eat
- Choking or gagging
- Hiccups or wet burps
- Becoming irritable during or after feeding
- Finding it difficult to sleep.
GERD in Pregnancy
Unfortunately, GERD symptoms are common during pregnancy – given the changes & pressures placed upon the body. But pregnant women only occasionally suffer complications & symptoms get better following childbirth. Doctors treat GERD the same way for pregnant women as they do for other patients.
When Should you see a Doctor for GERD?
While heartburn affects many of us daily & is easily treated with over-the-counter medications, longer periods of acid reflux are worth a doctor’s consultation. Severe acid reflux pain can be confused with the pain experienced during a heart attack, so a doctor’s appointment should be made. If you regularly suffer from acid reflux (more than twice a week) & experience a chronic cough, breathing difficulties & vomiting, book an appointment to discuss your options.
Call a doctor if you:
- Suffer from heartburn for more than three weeks most days
- Find that food is getting stuck in your throat
- Vomit frequently
- Lose weight without an obvious reason
GERD Risk Factors
GERD risk factors are common, but often easily managed with education, understanding & effort. Most cases are exacerbated by certain foods & alcohol. Foods known to trigger symptoms include:
- High-fat foods
- Spicy foods
- Citrus fruit
- Tea & coffee
Smoking is a contributing cause of GERD, as well as:
- Consuming big meals
- Sleeping or laying down soon after dining
- Frequent use of drugs such as aspirin & ibuprofen & other NSAIDS (members of the group of drugs known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
If the stomach bulges through the diaphragm into the chest cavity, it is known as a hiatal hernia. This can increase the chances of GERD because it weakens the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), many doctors believe.
Left untreated or undiagnosed, GERD can sometimes lead to serious complications, such as lung problems including:
- A hoarse voice
- Postnasal drip
- Chest congestion
- Lingering cough
If the lungs get inflamed, it can cause asthma, bronchitis & possibly even pneumonia. Other GERD complications include esophageal ulcers & strictures, both of which make it harder to swallow.
GERD & Asthma
Asthma sufferers develop GERD twice as much as other people. It’s not understood quite why, but what is clear is that acid particles common in GERD can get into the lungs & exacerbate asthma. GERD & asthma are linked by twin factors. When stomach acid enters the esophagus it can damage the airways to the lungs & the throat lining. What follows is often a persistent cough, accompanied by breathing problems. Asthma can be set off following regular exposure to acid, which makes the lungs more sensitive to triggers such as pollen & dust.
Also, stomach acid entering the esophagus can set off a protective nerve reflex. The airways can then tighten – to stop the acid getting into the lungs. But a consequence can be the narrowing of airways that then leads to shortness of breath & other asthma symptoms.
IBS & GERD
GERD is more likely if you already suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Both are conditions that act on the digestive system. It is not clear the reasons why they are linked with each other. Theories explaining the connection include pain sensitivity – both conditions arise when gut nerves become over-sensitive.
Confusion over symptoms could see IBS patients with GERD symptoms actually just suffering from indigestion. Similarly, people with GERD can find themselves reporting similar symptoms to those on the range that afflict IBS sufferers.
GERD Treatment can often be uncomplicated & straightforward. When you consult a doctor, they will assess your condition, after which they could suggest either over-the-counter medication or they may issue a prescription for treatment.
GERD Treatments may Include:
- Antacids: These neutralize stomach acids & can stop heartburn.
- H2 blockers & similar medications to reduce acid in the stomach.
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), or acid pumps: Drugs which block the protein needed to make stomach acid.
- Lifestyle & dietary changes.
To find out what treatment might best alleviate your GERD symptoms, call Medcare today for a medical recommendation.
Home Remedies for GERD
While GERD sufferers are always advised to book a doctor’s appointment, there are some home remedies which can help alleviate symptoms, such as:
- A teaspoon of baking soda mixed in a large glass of water to neutralize stomach acid.
- Chewing sugar-free gum.
- Eating bananas, apples or melons, offers natural antacid relief. Avoid citrus fruits with a high acidic content.
- Ginger or chamomile tea before a meal & before bedtime.
A simple, effective way to quell the symptoms of GERD is to examine which food & drink you consume on a regular basis. Logic suggests if you cut out spicy, fried & acidic foods, your symptoms may well decline.
An anti-GERD diet would be:
- Rich in whole grains
- Rich in root & green vegetables
Doctors advise smaller servings, eating slowly & chewing food thoroughly.
Aside from the onset of age, which can be one reason why we suffer from GERD, some preventative measures can be taken to avoid contracting the condition:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Don’t lie down after meals
- Eat smaller amounts, eat slowly & chew thoroughly
- Avoid foods & drinks that trigger reflux, & avoid tight-fitting clothing
Meet our doctors from the Gastroenterology department