Many people occasionally experience symptoms of heartburn or reflux without seeking medical treatment, but regularly experiencing the symptoms of acid reflux can be devastating for your esophagus. During episodes of acid reflux, your stomach contents actually move up into your esophagus. The result is often an unpleasant burning sensation in your neck and chest, as well as a sour taste in your mouth, coughing, or even difficulty swallowing. If you experience these symptoms more than a couple of times a week, then your acid reflux needs to be properly treated. You could have GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. There are many potential consequences of ignoring GERD, including:
Increased Esophageal Cancer Risk
The acid in your stomach is irritating to your esophagus, so regular attacks of acid reflux can be damaging. This damage can change the tissue inside of your esophagus, making it thickened and red, instead of pink and flat. While the risk is small, Barrett’s Esophagus can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer. Medications for acid reflux and evaluations of your esophagus by a healthcare professional can help protect your swallowing tube and reduce your risk.
Injury to Your Esophagus
While Barrett’s Esophagus is one of the most dreaded complications of acid reflux, all of that acid hitting your esophagus can also cause esophagitis. This condition is when your esophagus becomes inflamed or swollen from the acid irritation. You might have difficulty swallowing and become prone to esophageal ulcers (sores) or scarring. When your esophagus is irritated, it may even bleed.
Narrowing of Your Esophagus
Acid reflux can cause your esophagus to narrow, a condition known as an esophageal stricture. A narrowed esophagus makes it difficult and uncomfortable to swallow foods and liquids. You might even find it painful to eat or drink. This condition can worsen overtime.
The backwash of stomach acids can be damaging to your teeth, too. Many people with longstanding, untreated GERD experience tooth decay as the acid destroys the enamel of their teeth. Tooth decay lessens your confidence, but it’s also been associated with other health problems down the road, including heart disease.
Acid reflux is often associated with coughing, wheezing, or a hoarse voice. It can also make certain respiratory conditions, like asthma, worse. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, this is because irritation in the esophagus can cause the body to react in ways that increase asthma symptoms. Regurgitated acids can also be accidentally inhaled. This leads to the acid entering the lungs, where it could cause aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia can be dangerous if left untreated.
Finding Help for Acid Reflux
There are many steps that you can take to treat acid reflux. In fact, your doctor will likely first prescribe lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications to manage your condition. Changing your diet, reducing stress, and avoiding common acid reflux triggers can all go a long way toward helping prevent the complications and side effects of acid reflux.