For most people, the painful burning sensation in the chest that comes from heartburn is just an occasional mild annoyance. But for those who experience it on a regular basis, uncontrolled heartburn can turn into a very serious problem.
Heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD results from the improper working of the a valve, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), that normally keeps food and acids inside the stomach. When it doesn't work correctly, it allows acids to back up into the esophagus.
Heartburn is a common complaint in adults, especially after eating a hearty or spicy meal. Yet, infants and children also can experience that burning sensation in the chest. According to some estimates, about 2% of children ages 3 to 9, and 5% of children ages 10 to 17, have heartburn. Symptoms can even start in infancy.
You might be able to grit your teeth and learn to live with the discomfort of heartburn. But if you don't treat it, you could end up with serious long-term side effects. Here are just a few complications that can occur with uncontrolled heartburn.
Esophagitis, Barrett's Esophagus, and Esophageal Cancer
When stomach acids repeatedly back up into the esophagus, they can injure its sensitive lining. That injury can lead to painful inflammation called esophagitis. Eventually, the acid wears away at the esophagus, causing bleeding. If the bleeding is heavy enough, blood can pass into the digestive tract and show up as dark, tarry stools. Esophagitis can also cause ulcers -- painful, open sores on the lining of the esophagus.
In a small percentage of people, long-term acid exposure from GERD leads to a condition called Barrett's esophagus (BE). In BE, abnormal cells form and take the place of the cells damaged by acid reflux. And these cells have the potential to turn cancerous.
Those with BE have an increased risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma, or cancer of the esophagus. The probability for cancer is greater in white males over the age of 50, as well as in those who smoke or who are obese. If you are experiencing severe, long term heartburn, call you doctor.
Narrowing of the Esophagus
Damage to the esophagus over time also can produce scarring -- strictures -- that narrow the opening of the esophagus. These narrowed passages can make swallowing difficult and interfere with food and liquids getting into the stomach. It can also cause esophageal spasms, painful chest pains that can mimic a heart attack. As unpleasant as they can be, people who develop strictures find some relief from their heartburn. That's because the narrowing blocks acids from rising up into the esophagus.