Complications of Heartburn and GERD

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on February 15, 2022
3 min read

After finishing a big meal, you feel it -- that scorched feeling in your chest. But you can keep heartburn in check with the right treatment, like a medicine or lifestyle change.

If you brush off the symptoms, though, this common condition and its more serious form, GERD, can lead to other health issues. That’s because heartburn happens when your stomach juices wash back up. Over time, stomach acid may damage your esophagus, teeth, and more.

Learn about the complications caused by uncontrolled heartburn and GERD -- and what you can do about them.

When the acid flows back up, it enters the esophagus, a tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. This can set the stage for:

  • Esophagitis: Stomach acid irritates the lining of the esophagus, causing it to swell. This inflammation is called esophagitis, which can lead to painful swallowing.
  • Esophageal ulcers: GERD is the top cause of ulcers, or sores in the lining of the esophagus. Symptoms include painful swallowing, nausea, and chest pain. Your doctor will prescribe medicine to control your GERD and treat the ulcer.
  • Esophageal stricture: Over time, the damage caused by stomach acid can scar the lining of the esophagus. When this scar tissue builds up, it makes the esophagus narrow. Called strictures, these narrow spots make it hard to swallow food and drinks, which can lead to weight loss and dehydration.
    Strictures are treated with a procedure that gently stretches your esophagus.
  • Barrett’s esophagus: About 5% to 10% of people with GERD develop this condition, where stomach acid causes precancerous changes in cells.
    The good news is that only 1% of people with Barrett’s esophagus will get esophageal cancer. Doctors can remove the abnormal cells when they diagnose you early on. Because the condition doesn’t cause any obvious symptoms, you should see your doctor if you have GERD. They may do a procedure called an endoscopy, where a thin, flexible tube with a camera is inserted into your esophagus.

Having GERD slightly raises your odds of getting this type of cancer.

Having Barrett’s esophagus can also make esophagus cancer more likely, especially if there’s a history of the condition in your family.

Symptoms of this type of cancer, such as troubling swallowing and chest pain, don’t appear until the disease reaches a later stage. That’s when it becomes harder to treat. Ask your doctor about getting screened if you have a higher risk for the disease. They may want to do an endoscopy regularly.

Heartburn can also take a toll on your smile. Stomach acid can wear down enamel, your teeth’s hard outer layer. This can weaken teeth and lead to cavities.

Get the right treatment for your acid reflux to avoid having these related health problems.

Some lifestyle changes can also help:

  • Eat smaller meals, and avoid snacking before bedtime.
  • Raise the head of your bed by 6 inches.
  • Cut back on fatty and acidic foods, alcohol, chocolate, peppermint, and coffee.
  • If you smoke, stop
  • If you are overweight, weight loss will help
  • Avoid tight fitting clothes

Talk to your doctor. They may recommend taking medicine, such as an antacid, H2 blocker, or proton pump inhibitor (PPI). These are available over the counter and by prescription.