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It is imperative that acid reflux/GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) suffers find ways to prevent, reduce and relieve their acid reflux symptoms. Not taking such precautions will not only mean more discomfort, but long term consistent attacks of acid reflux can lead to internal damage that may be permanent, and can lead to other serious conditions that could eventually become life threatening. The following are complications that GERD sufferers can experience if chronic acid reflux is left untreated.
Ulcers - when subjected to repeated exposure of acid, the lining of the esophagus becomes inflamed and may eventually become damaged. Once the esophagus lining is damaged, the acid can break though the esophagus wall and cause an ulcer to form. An ulcer is a lesion that forms at the site of inflammation, where the tissue surface of the esophagus has eroded away. Ulcers can cause bleeding in the esophagus because they encourage additional inflammation which can erode into the esophageal blood vessels. Occasionally, bleeding may be severe and lead to necessary blood transfusions or corrective surgery. Ulcers can heal in the form of scars (fibrosis) when the esophagus is allowed time to heal from inflammation. These can cause a constriction in the esophagus.
Strictures – Over time, the scar tissue of a healed ulcer shrinks and narrows the inner cavity (lumen) of the esophagus, forming a stricture. When the narrowing is severe (typically when the stricture restricts the esophageal lumen to 1 cm (0.39 inches), food that is swallowed may become stuck in the esophagus. If food becomes stuck, endoscopic removal may be required. In order to stop the recurrence of food sticking, a procedure can be carried out to stretch the stricture.
Potential lung damage – the lower esophagus is home to numerous nerve endings. When certain nerves are stimulated by acid, pain is felt and the result is heartburn. However, when other nerves related to the lungs are stimulated, the reflux can constrict the airways and cause coughing and/or asthma attack. This doesn’t mean that acid reflux can cause asthma attacks in non asthmatics; it simply increases the risk of an attack in those with asthma, and may explain unidentifiable coughing in others with GERD.
Furthermore, acid that is refluxed into the lungs (aspiration) can cause lung inflammation which may lead to symptoms of discomfort, breathing problems, coughing, and choking. Aspiration can also occur without symptoms. When aspiration occurs and no symptoms are present, a person is at a greater risk of developing fibrosis (scar tissue) on their lungs. Lastly, regardless if symptoms occur, aspiration can cause an infection in the lungs that can result in a serious pneumonia that requires immediate treatment.
Barrett’s esophagus – Barrett’s esophagus occurs when the cells lining the esophagus change color from pink to a salmon color due to the composition of the cells lining the lower esophagus altering. The cellular change is known as metaplasia and is caused by consistent and long-term exposure to stomach acid. These altered cells have the potential to become cancerous.
Barrett’s esophagus is an uncommon condition that usually occurs only in people with severe long-term GERD and heartburn. Only an estimated 10% of people with GERD will develop Barrett’s esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus can be very painful and unpleasant, resulting in difficulty swallowing, vomiting blood or passing bloody or tarry stools, and a decrease in weight and appetite.
Furthermore, those who develop the condition are at an increased risk for developing esophageal cancer.
Esophageal cancer – This is a very serious form of cancer that begins in the inner layer of the esophagus and is related to Barrett’s esophagus. However, the risk of developing esophageal cancer for a person with Barrett’s esophagus is very slim (less than 1% per year), but nonetheless there still is a risk and it’s a risk that will only increase if treatment isn’t pursued.
Esophageal cancer is life threatening and is difficult to treat, especially in its latter stages. People with Barrett’s esophagus should be closely monitored.
Now that you are aware of the importance of treating chronic acid reflux/GERD, it is important that your treatment methods focus on treating the actual cause of your acid reflux and just symptoms.
Lifestyle change (I.E. sticking to and anti-acid reflux diet, herbal remedies, weight loss if overweight, etc.) is the best way to prevent frequent recurrence of acid reflux, as well as the many complications listed above that can occur.
Relying solely on medications (I.E. antacids, H2 blocker, and proton pump inhibitors) to treat your symptoms, is not an ideal or healthy method for preventing acid reflux, as you are opening up your body to a host of possible side effects (I.E. abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, headaches, etc.)
Moreover, another problem with taking medications for long-term use, is that the longer you use them, the more medication you may need to take. When the same drug (such as an antacid) is used to treat a symptom, the body may eventually develop immunity to the drug causing the medication to no longer work effectively. As a result, you will need to take stronger medication. The stronger the dose of medication, the more you increase your risk of developing side effects that can cause other health complications. Thus, it is highly recommended that you adopt other methods of treatment such as lifestyle change, and herbal/natural remedies to prevent acid reflux, and only use medications for relief when necessary.
Make sure you speak to your doctor about the risks associated with GERD, adopting a lifestyle change that will help prevent the development of complications that make heartburn the least of your worries.
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