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Effects of Uncontrolled Heartburn

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.

Recommended Related to Heartburn/GERD

Understanding Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) -- Prevention

Lifestyle changes sometimes help prevent symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, a chronic form of heartburn. The major cause of GERD is that the lower esophageal sphincter, located where the esophagus joins the stomach, is weak or relaxes inappropriately. Because fatty foods, mints, chocolates, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeinated beverages, such as coffee or colas, relax the lower esophageal sphincter, you may be able to reduce the amount of acid reflux you experience by avoiding these...

Read the Understanding Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) -- Prevention article > >

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.

Asthma and Other Respiratory Problems

Asthma and heartburn often go hand-in-hand. Studies have found that about 30% to 80% of patients with asthma also have symptoms of GERD. Whether asthma leads to GERD or vice versa is still unknown. One possible explanation of the connection between GERD and asthma is that acid that backs up from the stomach gets into the airways.

GERD has also been linked to several other respiratory conditions, including:

  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic cough
  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Emphysema
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring)
  • Recurrent pneumonia

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