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These Are 5 Risks You Face if You Don’t Treat GERD

If you overdo it once in a while — pizza loaded with tomato sauce, say, or a big plate of fried or fatty food — you might have heartburn that you can treat on your own with antacids or over-the-counter (OTC) medications. 

But gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is different. GERD is more than heartburn that strikes every now and then. It’s a condition you want to treat to lower your risk of dangerous complications. 

James Gordon, MD, a gastroenterologist with Banner Health, explained why some people may not seek treatment for GERD. “Some people just live with it. Some people don’t like taking medicines in general. And some of the treatments have had some bad press recently, although most of what they claim has not really panned out when you look at the studies.”

Here are some of the problems you could develop if you leave GERD untreated. 

1. Esophagitis

Esophagitis is a condition where the lining of your esophagus gets inflamed and irritated. That’s because, with GERD, your stomach acid travels up into your esophagus. This stomach acid can make your esophagus feel uncomfortable or painful and you may have trouble swallowing.

“Esophagitis can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding, blood loss and iron-deficiency anemia,” Dr. Gordon said.

2. Barrett’s esophagus

The acid reflux you have with GERD may lead you to develop Barrett’s esophagus over time. That’s a condition where the cells that line your esophagus change. Those changes may make it more likely that you could develop cancer in your esophagus, though the risk is low. Treating GERD may make Barrett’s esophagus less likely and reduce your risk of cancer.

3. Scarring and strictures

Untreated GERD can cause scarring in your esophagus, which can lead to strictures. Strictures are when the esophagus gets narrower. They can make it hard for you to swallow and it may feel like food is stuck in your esophagus. 

4. Dental erosion

Sometimes with GERD, the acid may come all the way up your esophagus and reach your mouth and teeth. Over time, the acid can erode your teeth. If that happens, your teeth may feel more sensitive to heat, cold or pressure and you could have dental problems.

5. Respiratory system issues

When you have GERD, you may breathe in the stomach acid that travels up your esophagus. If stomach acid gets into your lungs, it can cause coughing or wheezing. If you have asthma, this may make your symptoms worse. While GERD is associated with asthma and chronic cough, it’s just one of many factors that can cause these conditions.

Early diagnosis of GERD is important

If you have symptoms of GERD, you’ll want to see a health care provider for diagnosis and treatment. The main symptom of GERD is heartburn. If you have heartburn more than twice a week for two weeks or your heartburn doesn’t clear up when you take medication, it’s time to get care.

Other symptoms of GERD include acid regurgitation, where the stomach contents reach the back of your mouth. If that happens, you’ll probably notice a sour or bitter taste. With GERD, you might also cough or clear your throat often or have a sore throat.

Dr. Gordon said it’s especially important to seek care if you have any alarm symptoms, such as:

  • Abdominal discomfort if you’re over age 60
  • Chest discomfort
  • Signs of gastrointestinal bleeding, such as black or red bowel movements
  • Iron-deficiency anemia
  • Heartburn that’s so bad you can’t eat
  • Swallowing problems
  • Persistent vomiting

If your provider diagnoses you with GERD, you can start treating it and reduce the risk of developing dangerous complications. Plus you’ll feel better with your symptoms under control.

Treating GERD

Your provider will probably recommend medications like antacids, H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to help keep your GERD symptoms under control. Some lifestyle changes may also help treat GERD: 

  • Try to maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, try to choose a healthy diet and lose weight.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing.
  • Have your last meal at least four hours before bedtime.
  • Limit foods that often cause symptoms, such as tomato-based foods, fatty foods, citrus fruits and caffeine. 
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
  • Raise the head of your bed by 30 degrees or more.
  • Take steps to reduce your stress levels.

Surgical options to treat GERD, such as Nissen fundoplication and transoral incisionless fundoplication (TIF), may be options in some cases.

It’s important to see your provider regularly to check in on how your GERD treatment plan is working. Be sure to share any symptoms you’re having and any concerns or challenges you’re facing. 

Managing GERD means you’re taking steps to reduce your risk of complications and improve your health in the future. Treating the issues that could come from untreated GERD is a lot more complicated than preventing them.

The bottom line

If you have symptoms of GERD, such as frequent heartburn or acid regurgitation, it’s important to see a health care provider. Untreated GERD can cause complications such as an irritated and inflamed esophagus, precancerous conditions, scarring and dental problems. Early treatment can reduce your risk of these complications.

If you would like to connect with a provider who can diagnose and treat GERD and help you get your symptoms under control, reach out to Banner Health. 

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