For most people, heartburn is an occasional issue, but some experience persistent symptoms. If you’re in the second group, it’s crucial that you pay attention to your symptoms and visit a digestive specialist. Untreated chronic heartburn can cause a variety of health problems, some serious.
Vikram S. Jayanty, MD is a gastroenterologist backed by more than three decades of experience. Through his Houston, Texas practice, Dr. Jayanty offers top GI care, and is devoted to preventing, diagnosing, and treating a full spectrum of issues related to the digestive tract, including acid reflux.
Heartburn is very common. It happens when digestive fluid from the stomach flows backward into the esophagus. Because digestive fluids are acidic and meant to break down food that enters the stomach, they irritate the tissues.
When it strikes, heartburn typically feels like a burning sensation in the center of your chest. The feeling may extend to your throat. It’s also common to have a sour taste in the back of your throat.
There’s a valve called the esophageal sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus that opens and closes tightly to keep stomach contents from flowing into the esophagus. Sometimes the esophageal sphincter doesn’t close tightly, though, and the acidic contents of the stomach reflux into the esophagus.
Heartburn can be brought on by a wide variety of everyday things. Many people's heartburn are brought on by certain foods and lifestyle choices. Lifestyle factors include overeating, eating too close to bedtime, being overweight, and being under a lot of stress.
For some people, specific foods and beverages may trigger heartburn. Some common triggers include:
These foods are either acidic or increase acid production in the stomach.
One of the primary reasons you shouldn’t ignore heartburn is because it’s a telltale sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If you have GERD, treating it lowers the risk of other health complications. Additionally, GERD is linked to other issues, such as asthma, stomach ulcers, and reflux-related laryngitis. If you have any of these conditions, it’s important to work closely with your doctor to best manage them.
Untreated GERD can lead to a host of issues. The following are a few potential health problems.
In GERD, food, acid, and digestive juices reflux into the esophagus, the tube connecting the throat to the stomach. This eventually causes irritation and inflammation, known as esophagitis.
Letting acid reflux into the esophagus for just a few weeks is enough to cause inflammation of the lining of the esophagus.
Ongoing esophageal inflammation can cause scar tissue to develop, and the resulting scar tissue can cause the esophagus to narrow, making it difficult or painful to swallow. This is called esophageal stricture.
Over time, untreated GERD can cause uneven bands of tissue to form at the lower end of the esophagus. This too can lead to trouble swallowing.
Over the long-term, untreated heartburn has a negative impact on the cells of the esophagus. In some cases, the exposure to stomach acid causes the cells of the esophagus to change (Barrett’s esophagus), and these changes can go on to turn into a type of esophageal cancer. In fact, Barrett’s esophagus is an important risk factor for esophageal cancer.
Getting help for persistent heartburn not only eases symptoms, but it protects your esophagus and lowers the likelihood of having complications. If you’re dealing with symptoms of heartburn, schedule a visit with Dr. Jayanty today by calling or booking online.