Lots of people are intimately familiar with acid reflux symptoms. More than 60 million Americans experience acid reflux at least once a month. Acid reflux disease, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can produce a variety of symptoms.
What Are the Common Acid Reflux Symptoms?
Heartburn, regurgitation, and dyspepsia are a few of the most common acid reflux symptoms.
Heartburn. Also called acid indigestion, heartburn is a burning pain or discomfort that can move up from your stomach to the middle of your abdomen and chest. The pain can also move into your throat. Despite its name, heartburn doesn't affect your heart.
Regurgitation. Another common symptom of acid reflux is regurgitation -- or the sensation of acid backing up into your throat or mouth. Regurgitation can produce a sour or bitter taste, and you may experience "wet burps."
Dyspepsia. Many people with acid reflux disease also have a syndrome called dyspepsia. Dyspepsia is a general term for stomach discomfort. Symptoms of dyspepsia include:
- Nausea after eating
- Stomach fullness or bloating
- Upper abdominal pain and discomfort
Symptoms of acid reflux may be a sign that stomach acid has inflamed your esophagus. When that happens, stomach acid can damage the lining of your esophagus and cause bleeding. Over time, it can also change the cells of esophagus and cause a condition called Barrett's esophagus.
Although acid reflux is extremely common and rarely serious, don't ignore your acid reflux symptoms. Making a few lifestyle changes and using over-the-counter antacids are often all you need to control acid reflux symptoms.
When Do Acid Reflux Symptoms Occur?
Acid reflux symptoms most often occur:
- After eating a heavy meal
- When bending over or lifting an object
- When lying down, especially on your back
People who have frequent acid reflux symptoms most often experience them at night. Nighttime GERD also produces the most pain. However, the level of pain does not always indicate the degree of damage to your esophagus.
More than half of all pregnant women experience heartburn during pregnancy. Increased hormones and pressure from a growing fetus can combine to produce this acid reflux symptom. In most cases, heartburn improves or completely goes away after delivery.
What Makes Acid Reflux Symptoms Worse?
Certain foods can make the symptoms of acid reflux worse for some people. To lessen your symptoms, try avoiding:
- Citrus fruits
- Caffeinated drinks or alcohol
- Spicy, fatty, or fried foods
- Garlic and onions
Are There Potential Complications With Acid Reflux Symptoms?
Usually, acid reflux symptoms cause no complications. In a few cases, continued esophageal damage can lead to scarring, which may cause the esophagus to narrow. The narrowing creates strictures and makes it difficult to swallow. You may have dysphagia, a sensation that food is stuck in your esophagus. In some cases, normal cells in the lining of the esophagus may be replaced by a different type of cell. This is called Barrett's esophagus, which can sometimes develop into cancer.
When Should I Call the Doctor With Acid Reflux Symptoms?
Be sure to call your doctor if you don't get lasting relief from medications. Also call the doctor right away if you have any "alarm" acid reflux symptoms, such as these:
- Unexpected weight loss
- Blood in vomit
- Black, tarry, or maroon-colored stools
- Difficulty or pain with swallowing
Other acid reflux symptoms that should prompt a call to your doctor include:
- Asthma-like symptoms, such as wheezing or dry cough
- Hoarseness, especially in the morning
- Chronic sore throat
- Hiccups that don't let up
- Nausea that lasts for more than a day or two
Sometimes, people confuse the symptoms of heart attack with symptoms of acid reflux disease. That's because pain in the chest can feel like heartburn. When in doubt, call your doctor.
Call 911 if you have any of these symptoms of heart attack:
- Chest pain, pressure, or fullness lasting more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back
- Pain or discomfort in your neck, shoulder, upper back, or jaw
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or nausea
- Sweating along with chest pain
Acid Reflux vs. GERD
GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease. It’s heartburn (or reflux) that happens two or more times per week. It’s more serious than regular heartburn.
The problem lies at the place where your esophagus (the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach) connects to your stomach. You have a muscular valve there called the lower esophageal sphincter. Its job is to keep stomach acid in your stomach. But if that valve doesn’t work well, the acid can go back up into your esophagus. That’s reflux.
If stomach acid goes into your esophagus, you may have heartburn and belching. If it goes higher into your throat, you may have hoarseness and sore throat. And if it gets into your mouth, you’ll notice a bitter taste and you may cough. If it happens a lot, it may wear down your tooth enamel or worsen the symptoms of asthma.
The most common one is chronic heartburn. Others include:
- Chronic sore throat
- Trouble or pain when swallowing
- Suddenly having too much saliva
- Sour or bitter taste in the mouth
- Bad breath
- Inflammation of the gums
- Erosion of tooth enamel (the surface of the teeth)
- Chest pain
Sometimes, there are no symptoms and you only find out that you have GERD if it causes other problems. But just like with acid reflux, you should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you have chest pain.
Over time, untreated GERD may cause:
Esophagitis. This is an irritation and inflammation of the lining of the esophagus caused by stomach acid.
Trouble swallowing. Your doctor may call this dysphagia. It can happen if scarring narrows your esophagus.
Barrett's esophagus. This means that there are changes in the cells of the esophagus that may be precancerous.
Esophageal cancer. Years of exposure to stomach acid may cause cancer of the esophagus.