Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is caused by frequent acid reflux, which irritates the lining of the esophagus. GERD is generally diagnosed when a person experiences acid reflux more than two times per week.
Acid reflux is a common condition in which stomach acid flows up into the esophagus. This causes a burning, painful feeling in the chest more commonly known as heartburn or acid indigestion. Your stomach makes a strong acid to help break down food and to protect you from bacteria. The stomach is not harmed by the acid because it has a special lining. The esophagus is the tube that takes your food from your mouth to your stomach. It does not have the special lining, so it will be irritated by the stomach acid. Normally a special ring of muscle, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), keeps the stomach’s contents from flowing up into the esophagus. Acid reflux happens most often when the LES is not working correctly.
Symptoms of acid reflux include heartburn, bitter or sour taste in the mouth, difficulty swallowing, a chronic dry cough, wheezing and hoarseness. The heartburn usually occurs after a meal, lasts several hours and worsens if you lie down. Although it is not clear what causes the LES to weaken, certain factors seem to increase the risk of developing acid reflux including obesity, pregnancy, having a hiatal hernia, smoking, drinking alcohol and caffeine, and taking certain medications. Certain types of foods may trigger an heartburn episode.
Risk factors for GERD include obesity, pregnancy, smoking, dry mouth, asthma, diabetes, and connective tissue disorders. If you are experiencing frequent acid reflux, making lifestyle changes to lower your risks may help so that GERD is not developed. If you believe you may have GERD, or if you are experiencing acid reflux frequently, seek medical attention. Support groups are available for more resources and information.