Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can be thought of as chronic symptoms of heartburn. The term refers to the frequent backing up (reflux) of stomach contents (food, acid, and/or bile) into the esophagus -- the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. GERD also refers to the array of medical complications, some serious, that can arise from this reflux.
Though it causes discomfort, occasional heartburn is not harmful. About 20% of adults in the U.S. experience GERD symptoms such as heartburn and acid regurgitation at least once a week. But if you have heartburn frequently and it is untreated, your stomach's acid may inflame the lining of your esophagus or swallowing tube, potentially narrowing it.
Stomach acid may also change the cells of the lining of your esophagus. This change, called Barrett's esophagus, increases the likelihood of cancer of the esophagus. Only a small percentage of people with GERD develop Barrett's esophagus.
Your stomach's contents can also move into your throat and be drawn past your vocal cords and into your lungs, where they can cause damage, along with hoarseness, a chronic dry cough, or asthma.
Anyone can develop GERD at any age but you are more likely to develop it as you get older. Pregnant women are especially prone to GERD.
GERD and Heart Disease
GERD can cause a crushing pain in your chest identical to the pain of a heart attack. Sometimes medical professionals diagnose GERD after evaluating a patient for repeated episodes of chest pain that are found to be unrelated to heart disease.
IMPORTANT! Never ignore pain in your chest. Seek immediate medical help. Call 911. Any delay in getting help may be fatal. If your doctor says you have GERD, ask what you should do when you have chest pain.
Esophagitis, Barrett's Esophagus, and Cancer of the Esophagus
Esophagitis, or inflammation of the esophagus, is a complication of GERD. If GERD is left untreated, esophagitis can cause bleeding, ulcers, and chronic scarring. This scarring can narrow the esophagus, eventually interfering with your ability to swallow.
One major complication which occurs in about 10% to 15% of people with chronic or longstanding GERD is Barrett's esophagus. Barrett's esophagus results when the normal cells of the esophagus are replaced with cells similar to those of the intestine. This increases the risk of esophageal cancer. Developing Barrett's esophagus does not mean you will get cancer, but your chances of getting cancer will be greatly increased. Your doctor will want to check you on a regular basis in order to detect any cancer in its early stages. People who have Barrett's esophagus may require periodic endoscopies with esophagus biopsies to check for pre-cancer cells (dysplasia).