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What is GERD and how serious is it?

Yazan A. Qwaider, MD  

Yazan A. Qwaider, MD, is a gastroenterologist at North Colorado Medical Center.

Question: What is GERD and how serious is it?

Answer: Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when the stomach contents reflux or back up into the esophagus and/or mouth. Reflux is a normal process; most episodes are brief and do not cause bothersome symptoms or complications. In contrast, people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) experience symptoms as a result of the reflux. Symptoms can include heartburn, vomiting, or pain with swallowing. The reflux of stomach acid can adversely affect the vocal cords or even be inhaled into the lungs (called aspiration).

People who experience heartburn at least two to three times a week may have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. The most common symptom of GERD, heartburn, is estimated to affect 10 million adults in the United States on a daily basis. Heartburn is experienced as a burning sensation in the center of the chest, which sometimes spreads to the throat; there also may be an acid taste in the throat.

GERD is usually diagnosed based upon symptoms and the response to treatment. In people who have symptoms of reflux but no evidence of complications, lifestyle changes and in some cases, a medication, are often recommended, without testing. Specific testing is required when the diagnosis is unclear or if there are more serious signs or symptoms as described above. When the symptoms are not life threatening and the diagnosis of GERD is not clear, one or more of the following tests may be recommended such as upper endoscopy, 24 hours esophageal acid study and esophageal pressure measurement.

The vast majority of patients with GERD will not develop serious complications, particularly when reflux is adequately treated. However, a number of serious complications can arise in patients with severe GERD. Some of complication are esophageal ulcers formation, scaring and narrowing of the esophagus, lungs and throat problems such as asthma. Barrett’s esophagus, which is changing in the cell linings of the esophagus, which by itself is a risk for esophageal cancer. Unfortunately, esophageal cancer is on the rise in the United States and in many other countries. However, only a small percentage of people with GERD will develop Barrett's esophagus and an even smaller percentage will develop esophageal cancer.

Page Last Modified: 02/22/2010
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