Health Risks of Untreated GERD

Health Risks of Untreated GERD

Learn about the potential health complications associated with untreated gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Heartburn occurs when digestive acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus, the muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. This causes discomfort, often described as a burning sensation in the chest, because stomach acid causes damage and inflammation in the lining of the esophagus.

Heartburn can be caused by certain foods, drinks and eating habits—large meals, spicy foods, alcohol, fatty and fried foods, and lying down after eating are all common culprits. Heartburn can also be caused by: smoking including secondhand smoke; certain medications, including medications for asthma, high blood pressure, allergies, pain, sleep disorders and depression; by increased pressure on the abdomen as a result of by being overweight or obese; and pregnancy.

Recurring heartburn could also be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition caused when the sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus does not function normally. The esophageal sphincter normally opens and closes to allow food and liquid to enter your stomach. If the valve is weak or working abnormally, acid can flow back into the esophagus, causing heartburn symptoms. A type of hernia called hiatal hernia, where part of the stomach bulges into the chest, can also cause heartburn and GERD.

Untreated, GERD can also put a person at an increased risk for a number of complications and health conditions:

Esophagitis is inflammation of the esophagus. It can be painful and make swallowing difficult, and can lead to bleeding and ulcers in the esophagus. Over time, this inflammation can cause structural changes to the esophagus.

If the lining in the esophagus gets scarred, it may cause a narrowing of the esophagus, called strictures. These strictures make it difficult to swallow, and it may feel like food is getting stuck. This can be treated with an upper endoscopy procedure that will help stretch the throat to provide relief.

Just like in the stomach, acid can erode tissue lining in the esophagus and cause ulcers. The ulcer may bleed and make it difficult to swallow.

Barrett's esophagus
Long-term GERD can damage the lining of the esophagus, causing a condition called Barrett's esophagus. When the cells that usually line the esophagus are replaced with cells that resemble the cells in the small intestine, they become more resistant to stomach acid. According to the American Cancer Society, these cells can become abnormal and result in dysplasia, a pre-cancerous condition. Though, most people with Barrett's Esophagus do not develop cancer, they are at a higher risk of developing adenocarcinoma. However, the absolute risk—even in patients with Barrett's Esophagus—is still very low. Your healthcare provider will most likely recommend regular endoscopies to check for cancer.

Esophageal cancer
People who suffer from GERD have a higher risk of cancer of the esophagus and cancer of the gastroesophageal junction. Both cancers are considered rare, and the lifetime risk—1 in 132 men, and 1 in 455 women—for esophageal cancer is considered low. But treating heartburn and GERD will help prevent damage and progression.

Treatment for GERD
In many cases, acid reflux and heartburn is a treatable condition with a good prognosis. You should discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider to determine what’s causing your symptoms and your best course of treatment. There are a number of lifestyle changes that can help reduce GERD symptoms:

  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid trigger foods (peppermint, caffeine, alcohol, fatty foods etc.)
  • Eat smaller amounts at mealtime
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes
  • Don't eat close to bedtime
  • Elevating the head of your bed
  • Lose weight (if you are overweight or obese)
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about medications you are taking, and if those could be causing heartburn.

GERD can also be treated with a number of medications, including antacids, H-2-receptor blockers and proton pump inhibitors. Some patients may be directed to use an over-the-counter medication, while others may need a prescription-strength medication.

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