The Heartburn-Tobacco Connection
Why tobacco -- in any form -- may worsen GERD.
How Does Tobacco Affect GERD? continued...
Only the effects of smoked tobacco have been seriously studied on GERD symptoms, say experts. But anything with nicotine is likely to worsen GERD. Waring says that chew might pose specific problems.
"Smoking a cigarette only takes a few minutes," he says. "But people use chewing tobacco all day. That could lead to more irritation."
By the same token, nicotine gum could also pose a risk, say experts. "I don't know of any studies on nicotine gum and GERD," says Cheskin. "But I would worry that anything with nicotine would increase the risk of acid reflux."
Tobacco use also increases the long-term risks of GERD. Acid reflux is more likely to damage the esophagus in people who use tobacco than in people who don't. The damage will heal more slowly too, Cheskin says. Over time, tobacco users are more likely to face complications of GERD. These include chronic inflammation of the esophagus and even esophageal cancer.
Quitting: Will It Help Your Heartburn?
Cheskin says that cutting out tobacco will almost certainly ease heartburn symptoms.
"I think most people would feel the benefit of quitting within a few days," says Cheskin. He says that it's possible that cutting down your tobacco use -- rather than stopping cold turkey -- might help. But he strongly encourages people to quit.
Yet not everyone is sure that quitting makes a big difference.
"It's true that people with GERD who smoke tend to have symptoms that are more pronounced than people who don't smoke," says Waring. But there isn't good evidence that symptoms improve when people quit using tobacco, he says.
"I think tobacco only plays a minor role in acid reflux," he tells WebMD.
The results of research have been mixed. One 2004 study published in the journal Gut found that smoking tobacco had a strong cumulative effect on GERD symptoms. For instance, the study found that people who smoked everyday for twenty years were 70% more likely to have GERD than those who smoked daily for less than a year.
But a 2006 analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that while there was a connection between smoking and GERD, quitting didn't necessarily help resolve the symptoms.
So cutting out tobacco use may not cure you. Even if you ditch the cigarettes or chew, you might still have heartburn symptoms. But these may be controlled by other lifestyle changes or medicine.
Getting Control of Your Heartburn
Obviously, quitting tobacco isn't easy. Talk to your doctor about different strategies. You'll certainly need the support of your family and loved ones. You might also consider joining a support group to help you cope.
But just remember that while quitting is tough, you will probably feel a lot better for it. While many people might think of heartburn as an occasional discomfort, people with GERD know how painful and debilitating it can be. Quitting tobacco use could be a first and important step in getting control of your condition.
"If there already weren't enough reasons for you to quit smoking," says Cheskin, "resolving your heartburn is one that you can really feel."