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Eat and feel well
It's not unusual to have indigestion once in a while, especially after a big meal. But heartburn that happens frequently — or comes on with other symptoms — could be a sign of something more serious called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
"GERD is a digestive disorder that occurs when food and acid from the stomach flow back into the esophagus," says Donald Thompson, M.D., who specializes in digestive health at Lake Regional Gastroenterology. "It's uncomfortable and, when left untreated, can increase the risk of esophageal inflammation and cancer. GERD can also contribute to breathing problems like asthma, wheezing, loss of voice or pneumonia."
Heartburn vs. GERD: What's the difference?
GERD is often marked by frequent heartburn — a painful, burning feeling in the chest or back of the throat. But GERD can cause other symptoms, too. These include:
- Bad breath
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Chronic coughing
- In some cases, trouble swallowing or tooth erosion
"Anyone can have GERD," says Dr. Thompson. "Being overweight or smoking significantly raises a person's risk, though. Pregnant women and those taking certain medications — including some sedatives, antidepressants or high blood pressure drugs — are also more likely to be affected."
Get help for GERD
Getting GERD under control is the best way to start feeling better and lower your risk for possible complications.
Start by talking with your primary care provider. Together you can come up with a GERD management plan, including lifestyle changes like:
- Trading large meals for smaller, more frequent meals
- Identifying and avoiding heartburn-triggering foods, such as things that are spicy or acidic
- Eating a lower-fat diet
- Losing weight if needed
- If you smoke, quitting
- Elevating your head while you sleep
Over-the-counter and prescription drugs — such as antacids, H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors — can help, too.
"If symptoms persist or worsen, then it's time to see a gastroenterologist," Dr. Thompson says. "A gastroenterologist can perform tests, such as endoscopy, to determine the cause of your symptoms and extent of damage. They will use that information to develop an appropriate treatment plan. When lifestyle changes and medicines aren't enough, surgery can be another option."
When is it a stomach ulcer?
Ulcers and GERD are often confused, but these stomach disorders are not the same.
Ulcers are sores that develop on the inside lining of your stomach. Like GERD, the most common symptom is stomach pain. Other symptoms include bloating, heartburn, and nausea or vomiting.
"Contrary to popular belief, ulcers do not come from stress, coffee or certain foods," says Krista Jones, PA-C, who treats patients alongside Kevin Byrne, D.O., and Donald Thompson, M.D., at Lake Regional Gastroenterology.
"Ulcers are usually due to certain bacteria or long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as naproxen or ibuprofen. Although ulcers can sometimes heal on their own, they also can lead to serious health problems if not treated correctly."
Gastroenterologists will perform one or more tests to confirm an ulcer is present. Generally, targeted medications can heal an ulcer within weeks.
Categories: Digestive health