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What Are Acid Reflux Symptoms?

Image of What Are Acid Reflux Symptoms?
Image of What Are Acid Reflux Symptoms?

You know the feeling. You’ve paid the bill, finished your dessert, polished off the bottle of wine, and you’re about to hit the town when it strikes — that burning sensation in your chest. Was it the alcohol? The rich dessert? The sashimi? Why does this happen?

It sounds like you have acid reflux, and it could be caused by any of those foods.

Acid reflux is a common, but often misunderstood chronic condition that affects 25% of Americans. Many cases of acid reflux go undiagnosed, because people believe their heartburn is a condition, when it’s actually a symptom of acid reflux. And if you experience acid reflux more than two times a week, you may have long-term, persistent gastroesophageal reflux disease, a.k.a. GERD.

For many people, food is a common acid reflux trigger — so while you can’t cure acid reflux or GERD, you can lessen the discomfort with a few simple steps. Let’s dive into some background on acid reflux: what it is, what the symptoms are, and how to mitigate it, so we can help you can get on with your life and enjoy the foods you love...without the discomfort.

OK, so what is acid reflux?

Let’s go all the way back to health class, when we learned about the digestive system. In short: After you swallow food, it moves from your throat to the esophagus (a muscle also known as the food pipe), and then past a barrier called the lower esophageal sphincter (“LES”) and into the stomach, where digestion happens.

Your stomach contents are very acidic, filled with hydrochloric acid that helps to break down food and bacteria. Because of the acidity, your stomach is equipped with a special layer that releases an alkaline solution to neutralize these acids. But when you experience acid reflux, those acids have escaped upward, past the LES and back up into the esophagus. (It’s not known why some people have a LES that is weak or damaged, enabling this to happen.)

Unlike the stomach, the lining of the esophagus is not equipped to handle that acidity, which is why you might experience the common symptoms of acid reflux, namely a burning sensation behind your breastplate. That’s called heartburn, even though it has nothing to do with your heart (confusing, we know), and more than 60 million Americans experience heartburn each month, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. So you're not alone.

Common Acid Reflux Symptoms

When stomach acid makes its way into your esophagus, you’ll feel symptoms including, but not limited to:

  • asthma and/or shortness of breath
  • difficulty swallowing and/or sore throat
  • dry cough
  • dyspepsia or indigestion (recurring pain or discomfort in the upper part of your abdomen)
  • nausea
  • regurgitation, burping or vomiting
  • sour or bitter taste at the back of your throat (sometimes accompanied by bad breath)

What about heartburn?

One symptom that you didn’t see on that list is heartburn. And that’s because it’s such a common symptom that it deserved its own section. Heartburn is a burning sensation in your chest or throat, when acid moves backward into your esophagus. Severe cases can also generate back pain or a burning feeling felt between the shoulder blades.

It’s important to note that some people mistake the chest pain of acid reflux heartburn for a heart attack. While both do prompt chest pains, heart attacks are also accompanied by shortness of breath, cold sweats and lightheadedness, which differ from the sour and bitter taste of acid reflux.

What causes acid reflux?

You’ll often experience acid reflux symptoms after a heavy or large meal, while laying down or bending over. And it’s not just spicy, rich or fatty foods that cause acid reflux. Surprisingly, it can also be caused by sushi, grapefruit, tomatoes, coffee, soda, ice cream, and cheese. Because the amount of acid in your stomach peaks at night, it's more common to experience acid reflux before bedtime.

Acid reflux is more common in obese and pregnant people, as there is more pressure on one’s stomach, which can spur acid reflux.

How will my doctor diagnose acid reflux or GERD?

If you experience symptoms of GERD or acid reflux and it’s getting in the way of your life, you should start thinking about treatment. There are a few different ways to diagnose GERD:

  • confirming your symptoms
  • barium swallow, which means you’ll swallow barium before an x-ray, so the doctor can visualize what’s happening in your esophagus
  • endoscopy, which involves inserting a long, lit camera down your esophagus to get a better look
  • pH monitoring, to check the acidity levels in your esophagus
  • esophageal manometry, a tube that’s inserted down your esophagus to check the motor function of the sphincter

What can you do about acid reflux?

The good news is, there are many ways to mitigate the effects of frequent acid reflux. For medical treatments, you can take:

Evens offers all three options, and your doctor can help choose the one that's right for you, in addition to reviewing possible side effects.

There are also some lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce your acid reflux:

  • Eat smaller meals, and chew thoroughly.
  • Quit smoking (for many reasons). There are many health issues linked to smoking, but it also disrupts normal functioning of the LES, leaving you more prone to acid reflux.
  • Avoid triggering foods. Foods that are fatty, fried, spicy or salty, as well as seafood, cheese, alcohol, coffee, chocolate, peppermint, and ice cream are known to lead to acid reflux.
  • Don’t lay down until 2-3 hours after a meal. Being horizontal increases the chances that stomach acid will flow backward, into your esophagus. Some people experience relief when they sleep on an incline.
  • Keep a healthy weight. Because excess pounds put additional pressure on your stomach, acid reflux disproportionately affects obese and overweight people.
  • Chew gum. Chewing produces more saliva, which helps to neutralize stomach acids.
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothing. Tight clothing can put pressure on your abdomen and LES.

If you’re avoiding triggering foods and the common behaviors that are linked to acid reflux, and still experiencing symptoms, be sure to visit a doctor, as there may be another underlying issue.

OK, are there complications related to acid reflux?

While acid reflux is more of a discomfort than a serious health risk, you do need to be vigilant about what’s going on in your digestive tract, as things can escalate to more serious digestive diseases. According to the NIH, 5% of people who suffer from acid reflux, those who have GERD may develop Barrett's esophagus, a risk factor for developing esophageal cancer wherein the esophageal cells transform into cells akin to those in the intestines. In general, GERD patients are more at risk for esophageal cancer, so it’s important to see your doctor regularly.

We know this is a lot of information. Now that you know the acid reflux and GERD symptoms and risk factors, we recommend speaking with a licensed physician, who can determine whether an Evens treatment plan is right for you.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash