Having regular problems with your digestion? You may be suffering from symptoms of GERD – GastroEsophagal Reflux Disease. Learning to recognize the symptoms of GERD can save you from a lot of unnecessary discomfort.
Explained simply, GERD is a health problem in which acid is forced out of the intestines and back up the esophagus – the ‘pipe’ which food goes down when you swallow it, which leads into your intestines.
The problem is more commonly known as heartburn or acid reflux, although heartburn itself is really just a symptom and can be caused by other health problems.
Let’s take a detailed look at how to recognize GERD in both adults and children, what causes it, how doctors diagnose it and how it’s usually treated.
Most Common Symptoms of GERD
Let’s start by running through the most common symptoms of GERD. We’ll then focus in on some of the more severe GERD symptoms.
Once you know these GERD Symptoms well you’ll be able to take the actions you need to relieve yourself quickly, as well as having the peace of mind of knowing when your symptoms are bad enough for you to need medical assistance.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of GERD:
- Indigestion (feeling sick after eating)
- Struggling to swallow
- Feeling of food being stuck in the esophagus
- Regurgitation – food coming back up the throat after being swallowed
- General chest pains
- Excessive saliva in the mouth
- A sour, acidic taste in the mouth
The More Severe GERD Symptoms
While many people will experience occasional and reasonably harmless bouts of GERD at times throughout their lives, when GERD becomes severe it can lead to a wide number of other health complications.
These complications can include ulcers and a problem called Barrett’s esophagus, which is when throat cells start to mutate and eventually become cancerous if left untreated.
That’s why it’s important to keep an eye out for severe GERD symptoms and take action when you see them.
For starters, the frequency of GERD symptoms appearing is important. Someone who is having acid reflux symptoms several times a week is more at risk of developing complications than someone who only has the problems once every six months.
Advanced GERD can cause a wide range of health problems, the symptoms of which can include problems like throat inflammation and asthma-like coughing and difficulty breathing.
Lung infections can also develop when severe GERD is left untreated, often leading to a ‘wet’ cough and breathing difficulties.
Identifying Symptoms of GERD in Children
It can be hard to pick up on the symptoms of GERD in a young child as the symptoms can differ from those experienced by adults.
If you have a baby or toddler who can’t yet speak enough to describe symptoms to you, here are some of the visual indicators to keep an eye out for:
- Regurgitation and vomiting – these are amongst the most common symptoms in babies
- ‘Fussy’ behavior
- Heartburn (obviously this is hard to recognize if your baby can’t talk yet, but look for signs of discomfort in the baby’s face within an hour or two after eating)
How Do You Know If Your Baby Is Spitting up Food Due to GERD or Something Else?
One of the telltale signs of GERD in babies is that vomiting often appears suddenly and with no effort – there is often no retching (although this isn’t always the case, but it’s useful to know as an indicator of GERD).
When it comes to the causes of GERD in babies and young children, it may simply be a matter of the food you’ve been using.
On the other hand, the GERD may be caused by a more serious problem relating to the way the babies intestinal muscles are working.
You can try changing your baby’s diet to see if it helps, but it’s generally best to be on the safe side and consult a doctor early to make sure the problem isn’t anything that needs immediate treatment.
Left untreated, GERD in babies can lead to more serious problems like pneumonia, problems with breathing and a slower rate of growth.
Symptoms of GERD and Palpitations
The link between heartburn and GERD is well known, but can GERD actually affect the workings of your heart? As opposed to an actual stinging pain, heart palpitations involve a speeding up in the beating of the heart, often accompanied by irregular beating patterns.
It’s quite unlikely that any palpitations you’re experiencing are the direct result of GERD.
However, what may be happening is that a certain food you’re eating or substance you’re taking is setting off both your palpitations and GERD symptoms at the same time (such as heartburn), giving the impression that one is causing the other.
For example, drinking caffeine can be linked to both heart palpitations and symptoms of GERD.
Another approach has suggested that heart palpitations and GERD symptoms may be experienced together because the feelings of anxiety that can come with GERD pain can set off heart problems.
In any case, heart palpitations are certainly a good reason to contact your doctor for a check-up, but they are probably not a direct physical symptom of GERD and are most likely an indication of another health problem.
As mentioned above, GERD can lead to complications that may include coughing as a symptom. GERD itself doesn’t usually cause a cough until it has led to the development of a more serious related problem.
What you should be aware of though is that the cough caused by GERD is not always coupled with most common symptoms like heartburn.
You may be experiencing a cough which is the result of severe acid reflux without experiencing the symptoms most people describe.
If you’re experiencing a severe cough that won’t go away and you’re experiencing one of two of the other symptoms listed above but don’t have heartburn, you may still be suffering from GERD.
It’s likely a visit to the doctor will result in some testing and a procedure called an endoscopy to check out whether or not acid is escaping from your intestinal tract.
What Causes GERD?
Just as it’s important to be able to recognize symptoms of acid reflux disease, it’s important to understand why it happens in the first place.
Why is acid ejected from the intestines and stomach?
Ultimately, GERD relates to muscle control within the body. There’s a kind of muscular ‘valve’ which controls the flow of food into the stomach.
When this valve opens too open, it allows stomach acids to leak back up into the esophagus which causes the common symptoms like a burning sensation in the chest.
But that’s just an explanation of the physical cause of GERD – is there actually anything someone can do to increase the likelihood of this muscle control problem, or is it just something genetic?
Some Behaviors Can Cause GERD or Make It Worse
For instance, many people experience symptoms of acid reflux disease after a night of drinking alcohol.
It appears that alcohol can have an effect on the muscle ‘valve’ which is supposed to stop acid from flowing up into the esophagus.
Many foods can also make the problem worse, such as oranges and chocolate.
However, this doesn’t mean GERD is always the result of actions you’ve taken. Some people simply suffer from GERD without any explanation that relates to the way they eat or behave otherwise.
Symptoms of GERD: How Do Doctors Diagnose GERD?
Since heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, most doctors try to determine if GERD is the cause of a patient’s problems by offering a medication to stop acid reflux.
If the medication works then it’s usually safe to assume that the person was suffering from heartburn as a result of GERD (and not one of several other medical problems which can cause heartburn).
This method on its own often isn’t enough however, since there are other causes of heartburn which can be treated in this way – this test on its own doesn’t confirm 100% that GERD is the problem, so usually other tests are carried out as well.
The point made above in relation to GERD coughs also indicates why this method doesn’t always work, since the heartburn symptom isn’t always present in every GERD case.
Treating Symptoms of GERD
When it comes to treating symptoms of GERD, there are different approaches for dealing with the relatively minor symptoms (such as heartburn) and the more severe long term complications that can develop (such as ulcers).
Antacids for Neutralizing Stomach Acid
When it comes to heartburn, medicines such as antacids are available over the counter and can be quite effective. These medicines work by simply neutralizing stomach acid. There can be a bit of a double-edged sword in this case though.
If you’re suffering from regular heartburn and you rely on antacids to relieve the pain, you’re not dealing with the underlying problem and damage may still be occurring to your esophagus (particularly if you’re commonly getting reflux symptoms at night in bed).
To avoid developing more serious GERD-related problems, you should seek medical help to get treatment for the actual causes of the problem.
Gaviscon for a Protective Foam
Other treatments that can help you deal with GERD involve drugs like Gaviscon, which works by creating a layer of foam in the stomach.
This foam helps act as a kind of extra wall before the valve that leaks stomach acid in people suffering from GERD.
Proton Pump Inhibitors and H2 Blockers for Reducing Acid Production
Two types of medication that your doctor may prescribe to you are proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers.
Both of these can be highly effective at reducing acid production in the stomach. Both are also available in over-the-counter forms, although these aren’t as strong as the prescription versions.
Change in Lifestyle
Of course, if your GERD can be linked to certain aspects of your lifestyle – drinking alcohol, for example – then the simplest solution is usually to change that part of your lifestyle. Often a change in diet can help dramatically reduce the problem.
When it comes to GERD-related complications, the treatment depends on the problem itself. Ulcers, for instance are usually treated with a combination of antibiotics and antacids to prevent the formation of future ulcers.
Adopting a Diet to Help Prevent Symptoms of GERD
Making changes to your diet to reduce GERD pain aren’t just about changing what you eat.
They’re also about changing how much you eat and how often. Now, don’t panic – this isn’t about starving yourself.
Adopting a GERD diet is simply a matter of reducing the size of each meal you eat so you aren’t putting too much strain on the stomach at any given time.
When it comes to specific foods, changes should be about avoiding the foods that make GERD worse for you and cleaning up your diet if you’re currently eating a lot of junk food.
As a general guideline you should try to avoid greasy and fatty foods, chocolate, citrus fruits, minty foods, coffee, Coke and carbonated drinks in general.
Also, think about restricting your intake of alcohol and cigarettes if those are things you indulge in often. Reducing or eliminating these two things alone can make a significant difference.
The timing of your meals in relation to going to bed is also more important, because GERD tends to be worse when you’re lying doing.
When you’re in bed, you don’t have the help of gravity to keep acid in the stomach, so more acid tends to leak into the esophagus as a result.
Try to avoid eating any large meals within three hours of bed time. This should allow any GERD symptoms to pass and let you get a good night’s sleep.
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