Frequent heartburn could be a sign of something more serious going on. Leaving it untreated could raise your risk for these conditions.
You probably know the feeling of heartburn all too well—especially after enduring the wrath of a night of heavy drinking or inhaling half a pizza at 3 A.M. Once you get that familiar burning in your chest, you go through the same old drill: Just take some Tums and then the symptoms are gone … right?
While heartburn is a common symptom, one that affects more than 10 million adults in the U.S. on a daily basis, frequent acid reflux is not as normal as you think.
“I think heartburn is so common that people assume that it’s a normal part of life. The truth is, it’s not,” says Roshini Raj, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health and co-founder of healthy living brand Tula. “You shouldn’t be experiencing heartburn frequently and it could be a sign of something more serious going on in your body.”
Complications of Untreated Acid Reflux
Acid reflux occurs when the stomach acid that’s naturally in your stomach backs up into the esophagus. Stomach acid is very corrosive and very acidic— it helps up digest and break down food and fight off infections, says Dr. Raj. The stomach is built to tolerate the strength of the stomach acid, but your esophagus isn’t. “[Stomach acid] can be very damaging to the delicate lining of your esophagus,” says Dr. Raj.
People who have frequent heartburn or other acid reflux symptoms (at least two to three times a week) may have what’s called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This frequent acid reflux can cause other bothersome symptoms too, like nausea, bad breath, and trouble swallowing. Learn more about the difference between heartburn and GERD.
The consequences of untreated acid reflux don’t stop there. “In some cases, acid reflux can go onto more serious conditions,” says Dr. Raj. Some of these conditions include:
Esophagitis, or inflammation of the esophagus, is one of the common complications of acid reflux. “If you have chronic inflammation due to acid reflux, sometimes that inflammation gets so severe that it actually causes a narrowing of your esophagus. You may have either pain or difficulty swallowing,” says Dr. Raj.
Barrett’s esophagus, another potential complication of acid reflux, is a condition where the exposure to acid changes the cells in the lining of your esophagus to a precancerous type of cell, says Dr. Raj. Over time, this can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Erosion of tooth enamel. Acid coming up from your stomach can permanently erode your tooth enamel. Frequent acid reflux may also give you chronic bad breath. (Try these dentist-approved bad breath remedies.)
Irritated airways. Small amounts of acid can come up and may fall into the trachea or windpipe and irritate your airways. This may cause respiratory symptoms or worsening of existing respiratory symptoms like asthma.
Red or black stool. If your acid reflux is eroding your esophagus or causing little tears, it can make it bleed, which then travels down into your digestive system. “You may see that blood in the stool in the form of red blood or very dark, black stools,” says Dr. Raj. Here are more things your poop color can reveal about your health.
Getting the proper treatment for acid reflux lowers your risk of getting these complications. “You don’t want to just accept acid reflux as part of your life, you want to make sure that you’re getting the correct diagnosis, evaluation, and the correct treatment,” says Dr. Raj.
Dr. Raj is a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine, and an attending physician at NYU Langone Medical Center.
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I think heartburn is so
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common that many people assume
that it's a normal part of life.
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And the truth is it's not and
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you shouldn't be experiencing
heartburn frequently and
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it could be a sign of something
more serious going on in your body.
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Stomach acid is important because it
helps us digest and break down our food.
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It also helps us fight off infection.
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So any sort of bugs that we may
ingest accidentally with our food,
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stomach acid is there to kill it off so
it doesn't make us sick.
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Stomach acid is very corrosive,
it's very acidic,
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and that can be very damaging to
the delicate lining of your esophagus.
00:00:40,440 --> 00:00:43,460
Esophagitis means inflammation
of the esophagus and
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this is one of the common
consequences of acid reflux.
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If we take a tiny sample or
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a biopsy we will see signs of
inflammation in the esophagus.
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If you have chronic inflammation due to
acid reflux, sometimes that inflammation
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gets so sever that it actually causes
a narrowing of your esophagus.
00:01:01,620 --> 00:01:04,040
You may have either pain or
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Another potential complication of
acid reflux is Barrett's Esophagus,
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this is a condition where the cells in the
lining of your esophagus actually changed
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because of the exposure to acid to
a more precancerous type of cell.
00:01:17,610 --> 00:01:20,010
GERD can actually erode your enamel so
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your dentist actually may
notice signs of acid reflux.
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For some people it can cause bad breath,
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it can actually affect
your oral health as well.
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Some people actually experience
respiratory symptoms because of
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acid reflux or
worsening of conditions like asthma.
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And the theory here is that minute amounts
of acid are coming so high up that they
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actually fall into the trachea or
your windpipe and irritate your airways.
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If you have severe inflammation in your
esophagus to the point where it's causing
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almost little tears in your esophagus or
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an ulcer, those can actually bleed and
you may see that
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blood in the stool in the form of
red blood or very dark black stools.
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Getting the proper treatment for
acid reflux does lower your risk
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of these types of complications, but
it doesn't eliminate it all together
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which is why it's important to
follow up with your doctor.
Patient education: Acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease) in adults (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. (Accessed on July 6, 2018 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/acid-reflux-gastroesophageal-reflux-disease-in-adults-beyond-the-basics)