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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)


Topic Overview

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This topic is about gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in adults. For information on reflux in babies and children, see Gastroesophageal Reflux in Babies and Children. For information on reflux while pregnant, see Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease During Pregnancy. For information about occasional heartburn, see Heartburn.

What is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)?

Picture of the digestive systemReflux means that stomach acid and juices flow from the stomach back up into the tube that leads from the throat to the stomach (esophagus). This causes heartburn. When you have heartburn that bothers you often, it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.

Eating too much or bending forward after eating sometimes causes heartburn and a sour taste in the mouth. But having heartburn from time to time doesn't mean that you have GERD. With GERD, the reflux and heartburn last longer and come more often. If this happens to you, be sure to get it treated, because GERD can cause ulcers and damage to your esophagus.

See a picture of the esophagusClick here to see an illustration..

What causes GERD?

Normally when you swallow your food, it travels down the food pipe (esophagus) to a valve that opens to let the food pass into the stomach and then closes. With GERD, the valve doesn't close tightly enough. Stomach acid and juices flow from the stomach and back up (reflux) into the esophagus.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of GERD is heartburn. It may feel like a burning, warmth, or pain just behind the breastbone. It is common to have symptoms at night when you're trying to sleep.

If you have pain behind your breastbone, it is important to make sure that it isn't caused by a problem with your heart. The burning sensation caused by GERD usually occurs after you eat. Pain from the heart usually feels like pressure, heaviness, weight, tightness, squeezing, discomfort, or a dull ache. It occurs most often after you are active.

How is GERD diagnosed?

First, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your health. You may or may not need further tests. Your doctor may just treat your symptoms by prescribing medicines that reduce or block stomach acid. These include H2 blockers (for example, Pepcid) and proton pump inhibitors (for example, Prilosec). If your heartburn goes away after you take the medicine, your doctor will likely diagnose GERD.

How is it treated?

For mild symptoms of GERD, you can try over-the-counter medicines. These include antacids (for example, Tums), H2 blockers (for example, Pepcid), and proton pump inhibitors (for example, Prilosec). Changing your diet, losing weight if needed, and making other lifestyle changes can also help. If you still have symptoms after trying lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medicines, talk to your doctor.

Your doctor may recommend surgery if medicine doesn't work or if you can't take medicine because of the side effects. Fundoplication surgery strengthens the valve between the esophagus and the stomach. But many people continue to need some medicine even after surgery.

GERD is common in pregnant women. Lifestyle changes and antacids are usually tried first to treat pregnant women who have GERD. Antacids are safe to use for heartburn symptoms during pregnancy. If lifestyle changes and antacids don't help control your symptoms, talk to your doctor about using other medicines. Most of the time, symptoms get better after the baby is born.

How can you manage GERD?

Many people with GERD have it for the rest of their lives. You may need to take medicine for many years to help control the symptoms. But you can also make changes to your lifestyle to help relieve your symptoms of GERD. Here are some things to try:

  • Change your eating habits.
    • It's best to eat several small meals instead of 2 or 3 large meals.
    • After you eat, wait 2 to 3 hours before you lie down. Late-night snacks aren't a good idea.
    • Chocolate, mint, and alcohol can make GERD worse. They relax the valve between the esophagus and the stomach.
    • Spicy foods, foods that have a lot of acid (like tomatoes and oranges), and coffee can make GERD symptoms worse in some people. If your symptoms are worse after you eat a certain food, you may want to stop eating that food to see if your symptoms get better.
  • Don't smoke or chew tobacco.
  • If you get heartburn at night, raise the head of your bed 6 in. (15 cm) to 8 in. (20 cm) by putting the frame on blocks or placing a foam wedge under the head of your mattress. (Adding extra pillows doesn't work.)
  • Don't wear tight clothing around your middle.
  • Lose weight if you need to. Losing just 5 to 10 pounds can help.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD):

Being diagnosed:

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Living with GERD:

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