Everyone experiences occasional heartburn, and it’s usually only a minor nuisance. But when does heartburn become a serious health risk?
The Difference Between Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and GERD
First, let’s establish the difference between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). The terms are often used interchangeably, but they have different definitions. Heartburn is the term used to describe the burning sensation in your chest when acid backs up into your esophagus. Since the esophagus is behind the heart, the term “heartburn” was coined. Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux and GERD, and it typically occurs after eating.
Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus, irritating the esophageal lining and causing discomfort. This can happen when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) malfunctions. The LES is a muscle between your esophagus and stomach, and it usually opens up when food/drink is coming, then closes again to seal the food/drink inside your stomach for digestion. If the LES malfunctions, stomach acid can flow out of your stomach and into your esophagus, burning the delicate esophageal tissue.
GERD & Heartburn
GERD is diagnosed when the esophageal tissues become inflamed or irritated because of frequent acid reflux. GERD can cause serious damage to the esophagus, and it can eventually progress into Barrett’s esophagus, which is a precursor to esophageal cancer. Although heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, it is possible to have GERD without experiencing heartburn. Other symptoms could include coughing, acid regurgitation into your mouth when you bend over, hoarseness (particularly in the morning), a feeling that something is stuck in your throat, and sore throat.
When your heartburn begins to affect your everyday life, you may wonder if it’s time to see a doctor about your symptoms. If any of the following apply to you, it is definitely time to schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist.
You’re Still Experiencing Symptoms After Diet and Lifestyle Changes
Certain foods and behaviors can lead to heartburn, but if you’ve made changes and your heartburn still isn’t going away, it’s time to see a specialist.
You Consistently Have Heartburn 2 or More Times Per Week
Even if you take antacids regularly to combat heartburn, you may still have esophageal damage caused by stomach acid.
Over the Counter Medications Are No Longer Working
If this happens, you may need a prescription medication to ease your symptoms.
If You’ve Been Taking a PPI for More Than 8 Weeks and Aren’t Currently Under the Care of a Gastroenterologist
Common PPIs ((Proton PUMP Inhibitor) include Prevacid, Nexium, and Prilosec. You may think that since you can buy some PPIs without a prescription, you don’t need to consult a physician about using them. But long-term PPI use can cause unwanted side effects and they can interact with other supplements, so it’s best to speak to a gastroenterologist.