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Understanding GERD

What is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic (long-term) problem that affects your digestive system. With GERD, stomach acid flows back into your esophagus (the tube-like part of your digestive system that connects your throat to your stomach).

How do you know if your symptoms are acid reflux or GERD? If they happen once in a while, it’s called acid reflux. When they happen frequently, it’s considered GERD.

What happens when you have GERD?

To understand GERD, it helps to know how your digestive system works. Here’s a quick digestive system explanation:

When you eat or drink, you take in food and liquids in your mouth. What you eat is mixed with saliva and travels through your esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine. As it goes through your body, your digestive system pulls nutrients from your food and gets rid of waste.

After you swallow, your food goes down your esophagus and into your stomach. There’s a muscle where your esophagus meets your stomach that’s shaped like a ring. It’s called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).

The LES works like a one-way valve and keeps stomach acid from flowing into the esophagus. If you have GERD, this valve is weak or isn’t working right. So stomach acid gets into the esophagus and irritates its lining, causing discomfort.

GERD symptoms and risk factors

When stomach acid enters the esophagus, you may notice symptoms like heartburn and/or regurgitation (bringing swallowed food up again in your mouth). You’re more likely to have GERD if are overweight or have a hiatal hernia. Pregnant women are also at higher risk for GERD because of hormonal changes and their expanding uterus pressing on digestive organs.

Learn more about GERD symptoms and risk factors.

Diagnosing GERD

You can see your primary care provider or a gastroenterologist (digestive system doctor) to find out if GERD is causing your symptoms. They will ask about your symptoms and any digestive problems. If they think you have GERD, they may recommend certain tests.

Learn more about diagnosing GERD.

Treating GERD

Even though GERD can be a long-lasting condition, treatment is important. Treatment can keep symptoms under control and prevent complications, like Barrett’s esophagus (which can increase your risk of esophageal cancer). Lifestyle changes, medications and sometimes surgery are excellent treatment options.

By working closely with your health care provider, you can come up with a treatment plan that manages your symptoms so you can do the things you enjoy in life without discomfort.

Learn more about treatment options for GERD