Acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a chronic digestive condition that causes painful heartburn and regurgitation. It occurs when the contents of the stomach seep backward into the esophagus. This can damage lining of the esophagus and the throat, causing a variety of symptoms.
What Causes Reflux?
Normally, following a meal, a group of muscles between your esophagus and your stomach contract preventing hydrochloric acid produced in the digestive process from backing up (refluxing) into the esophagus. When this group of muscles fails to work properly reflux occurs, and the stomach contents flow freely into the throat and esophagus.
A hiatal hernia can also cause GERD and occurs when the upper portion of the stomach moves above the diaphragm (a dome like muscle that separates the abdomen from the chest), allowing stomach acids to reflux more easily.
Other risk factors can exacerbate the condition. These include eating large meals or lying down immediately after eating, eating certain foods (spicy and fatty foods, citrus, tomato, chocolate, mint, garlic and onions), drinking certain beverages (alcohol, caffeine, carbonated liquids), smoking, obesity and pregnancy.
What Are the Symptoms of Reflux?
Heartburn is most commonly associated with GERD. This burning pain radiates from the stomach to the abdomen and chest, and may last for up to two hours after a meal. It is frequently accompanied by regurgitation, a sour taste in the mouth, and dyspepsia or general stomach discomfort.
Other symptoms include belching, bloating, coughing, wheezing, hoarseness and nausea. Symptoms occur most frequently after eating, when lying down or when bending over. When reflux causes symptoms in the throat (frequent throat clearing, hoarseness, a sensation of a lump in the throat, coughing, etc.) without causing symptoms in the esophagus like heartburn it is often called laryngopharyngeal reflux.
How Is Reflux Treated?
An effective way to treat acid reflux is to avoid the foods and behaviors mentioned above that can cause it.
Over-the-counter antacids taken immediately after can prevent heartburn from occurring or relieve the symptoms. If these fail prescription medications (proton pump inhibitors of H2 blockers) may help. For serious cases that do not respond to medical treatment, surgery may be recommended.