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    Severe Heartburn? It May Be GERD

    Heartburn may seem like an irritation, but it can lead to serious health complications -- if left untreated.

    GERD: A Symptom Checklist

    "When you see your doctor, talking through your symptoms is nearly as accurate in diagnosing GERD as the tests we have," Richter says. "Are the classic symptoms there? If the answer to that question is yes, it's probably GERD."

    What are those classic symptoms? Here's a checklist that will help you gauge your reflux troubles:

    • Do you suffer from heartburn symptoms more than two or three times a week?
    • Do the symptoms feel like a burning under your breastbone?
    • Do your symptoms often get worse after eating?
    • Are you taking antacids after every meal to minimize symptoms? Do they help?
    • Do you feel a burning chest pain when exercising?
    • Are your symptoms worse when you lie down?
    • Do you often taste a faint sense of acid in your mouth?
    • Do you have trouble sleeping at night?
    • Do you have asthma that is made worse when you're having heartburn?
    • Does your voice get scratchy when you have heartburn?
    • Is heartburn interfering with your quality of life?

    Answering yes to one or more of these questions might mean you have GERD. Make an appointment to see your doctor.

    Why You Should Never Ignore GERD

    After several years, untreated GERD erodes the lining of the esophagus, and as a protective mechanism, the esophagus starts to create a new lining with cells that resemble the makeup of the intestine. At this stage, GERD has progressed into a precancerous condition known as Barrett's esophagus, bringing with it a 30-fold increased risk of eventually developing esophageal cancer.

    Esophageal cancer is deadly -- only about 15% of people are still alive five years after being diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society. And it's more common among individuals who have long suffered from GERD that is not properly treated.

    According to a study published in TheNew England Journal of Medicine, cancer of the esophagus was nearly eight times as likely among people who suffered from heartburn at least once a week, and almost 44 times as likely in those who had severe, frequent heartburn for more than 20 years. Almost all of these people had only sporadic treatment for GERD, not long-term treatment.

    If you have GERD, and you are having any of these symptoms, tell your doctor right away:

    • If difficulty swallowing or a feeling like food is trapped behind the breastbone becomes a new symptom of your GERD.
    • If you vomit blood or have black, tarry bowel movements.
    • If you have the sensation of acid reflux into the windpipe causing shortness of breath, coughing, or hoarseness.
    • If you lose weight unexpectedly or without trying.
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    Reviewed on February 09, 2007

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