Experiencing gastroesophageal reflux — or when particles in the stomach like food and acid go back up into the esophagus — is, in some ways, par for the course of being human. About 20 percent of American adults have it at least weekly, and more than 50 percent have it at least once a year, says Dr. John O. Clarke, clinical associate professor of medicine in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at Stanford University, where he directs the esophageal program.
In fact, it’s even normal to have minor instances of reflux (often that you don’t even notice) 40 times a day, thanks to your anatomy, adds Clarke, who’s also a spokesperson of the American Gastroenterological Association. “When you’re eating, you’re usually swallowing air, so there’s a natural venting mechanism to let some of the pressure go back up,” he explains.
But that part of being human can get problematic if it’s causing persistent and quality-of-life-altering symptoms. If that’s the case, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. Knowing the symptoms of GERD is important because identifying and treating it will not only improve daily life, but can also help prevent the type of inflammation that can raise your risk for esophageal cancer, Clarke says.
“The fear is not so much heartburn and acid regurgitation; it’s more a worry that (the reflux) could lead to complications,” he says, noting that more than half of esophageal cancer cases are reflux-related. Here are some symptoms that may indicate GERD is happening to you:
GERD Symptoms in Adults
Most classic GERD symptoms are well-known and easily identified in American adults, Clarke says, though chest pain can be confused with the signs of a heart attack. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, common symptoms of GERD include:
— Acid regurgitation, or sour-tasting food coming back up.
— Sore throat.
— Chronic cough.
— Chest pain.
— A “lump” in your throat.
— Pain or trouble swallowing.
— Nausea and vomiting.
Not everyone with highly acidic stomachs — which is linked to GERD — has a lot of symptoms, so identifying GERD doesn’t necessarily come down to symptoms alone. Still, it’s a good place to start. If you experience some of these symptoms regularly and suspect they’re related to GERD, but don’t have a family history of esophageal cancer or any of the severe symptoms, you can try self-medicating with over-the-counter medications. Lifestyle changes like reducing the amount of acid in your diet and losing weight can sometimes help, too, since more abdominal weight seems to aggravate reflux. “As the U.S. as a whole is becoming more overweight, we’re seeing reflux now being more of an issue than it was 25 years ago,” Clarke says.
If you find you’re using the medications as often as daily or your self-management techniques aren’t giving you relief, see a gastroenterologist for more individualized care.
Severe Symptoms of GERD
Some symptoms of GERD are severe, and should lead you to seek medical attention right away. Among them:
— Activity-triggered chest pain.
— Unintentional weight loss.
— Choking or serious trouble swallowing.
— Throwing up blood or dark brown material.
— Red or black stools.
GERD Symptoms in Babies
Reflux is normal and especially common in the first year of life, since babies don’t have a lot of room in their digestive tracts and spend more time in reflux-inducing positions (namely lying down), says Dr. Jenifer Lightdale, division chief of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center.
But it can be especially difficult to identify in little ones because reflux looks a lot like normal spit-up, and how they react to it varies widely. Unlike adults, who can describe (and Google) their symptoms, “some babies are screaming and arching, and some are very quiet and just won’t eat,” says Lightdale, an expert of the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.
Here are some other symptoms of reflux in babies, according to the Mayo Clinic:
— Frequent projectile vomiting.
— Green or yellow spit-up.
— Bloody or dark brown spit-up.
— Refusing food.
— Bloody stool.
— Difficulty breathing.
— Chronic cough.
— Begins spitting up after the age of 6 months.
— Irritability after eating.
Though reflux isn’t usually a problem in infants, if you notice any of these symptoms, talk to your pediatrician. “With babies, we wind up focusing on the thriving concept — if they’re not keeping up and are having these symptoms, that’s when we start thinking (it could be reflux),” Lightdale says.
If it is, the first-line solution involves changes like how parents hold their baby and what they’re feeding him or her. A breastfeeding mom, for example, may be advised to take milk, soy and eggs out of her diet, since there may be a link between certain proteins in the diet and reflux symptoms, Lightdale says. Typically, she says, “once we change the diet, it’s dramatic” how much symptoms improve.
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