Heartburn and acid reflux affect millions of people every year. Because it’s common, you may be inclined to believe that frequent heartburn is no big deal and something you should simply learn to endure. However, frequent heartburn that is left untreated can lead to more serious health complications.
What causes heartburn?
In most cases, the pain of heartburn is caused by stomach acid flowing back up into the esophagus. Frequent heartburn can be a symptom of GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. GERD patients experience persistent heartburn and acid reflux because the valve that’s supposed to keep acid inside the stomach is malfunctioning in some way. While occasional reflux may be nothing more than an uncomfortable annoyance, uncontrolled and recurring heartburn can cause long-term problems.
What are the effects of uncontrolled heartburn?
- Esophagitis: Repeated exposure to stomach acids can injure the lining of the esophagus and cause painful inflammation known as esophagitis. Esophagitis can also cause ulcers, painful, open sores on the lining of the esophagus, and bleeding.
- Cancer: In some cases, long-term GERD can lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus (BE). This condition is characterized by new, abnormal cells forming to replace those damaged by constant exposure to acid. Over time, Barrett’s esophagus can lead to cancer. People who suffer from nighttime heartburn are especially prone to developing cancer as a result of their acid reflux.
- Narrowing of the esophagus: If your esophagus is damaged from acid, it may develop a buildup of scar tissue that narrows the opening of the esophagus. This can cause problems with swallowing and the ingestion of food.
- Respiratory problems: It’s believed that GERD causes respiratory problems because acid backs up into the airway and nasal passages. Frequent heartburn has been linked to an increased risk for asthma, chronic bronchitis, chronic cough, chronic sinusitis, emphysema, and recurrent pneumonia.
- Dental problems: GERD patients have been shown to have more erosion of tooth enamel than people without GERD. Stomach acids that back up into the mouth can also cause bad breath.
If you have heartburn that occurs two or more times a week, contact your doctor. There are treatment options available to handle heartburn and GERD, and they can prevent you from experiencing any of these long term effects.