What Is Acid Reflux?
When you chew and swallow food, it travels down through your esophagus and into your stomach where it’s digested. At the bottom of your esophagus where it meets your stomach, there’s a tight, ringlike band of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter that relaxes to allow food through and constricts again when you’re done eating and drinking. When your esophageal sphincter closes back up, your stomach releases acidic liquids that begin breaking down and digesting the food.
Normally, your esophageal sphincter stays tight and closed to keep partially digested food and the acidic liquid from flowing back up into your esophagus while your stomach’s muscles mix its contents. However, sometimes the sphincter can weaken or relax and open back up, allowing food and stomach acid to travel into your esophagus. The acid then irritates the lining of your esophagus, causing it to become swollen and inflamed. When this backwash happens, it’s called acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux.
Most people experience acid reflux every once in a while. However, if you experience it frequently — twice a week or so if it’s mild and around once a week with more severe symptoms — you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Frequently having acid reflux can lead to a number of other health issues, including open sores or scar tissue forming due to frequent exposure to stomach acid. It may also lead to changes in your esophagus tissue that can increase your chances of developing cancer that first forms there. That’s why understanding the symptoms of acid reflux is so essential, particularly if you experience it often; the sooner you start treating it, the better your chances are of avoiding possible health complications.
Common Acid Reflux Symptoms
Acid reflux symptoms can range in severity from mild discomfort to chronic pain that interferes with daily activities. They can appear at any time of the day or night, but some people tend to experience them only during the day or only at night. As a result, certain symptoms are related to sleep because they occur or worsen due to the fact that you’re lying down.
Common Daytime Symptoms of Acid Reflux
Heartburn: This is a burning pain that you feel in your chest behind your breastbone. It typically appears a little while after you eat a large meal or eat something and lie down, and it can create an acidic, bitter taste in your mouth that also burns somewhat. Heartburn happens when your esophageal sphincter allows stomach acid into your esophagus, and that acid travels back up into your throat.
Chest Pain: Acid reflux is the most common cause of chest pain that isn’t related to your heart, according to The Cleveland Clinic. Often it’s a result of heartburn, but it can also happen if your esophagus muscles start to spasm when the tissues there become irritated and inflamed due to the presence of stomach acid. Chest pain from acid reflux typically affects your upper chest and throat.
Trouble Swallowing: Also called dysphagia, having trouble swallowing means you have to exert more effort to move food or liquid from your mouth into your esophagus. It can feel like food is getting stuck in your throat, or swallowing may become painful. If you have chronic acid reflux, the continual presence of stomach acid in your esophagus can cause scarring in its tissues. As the scars grow, they can make your esophageal opening narrow, which physically makes it harder for things you eat to fit into your esophagus even after chewing them.
Regurgitation: This symptom occurs when partially digested food and stomach acid move all the way back up your throat and into your mouth, causing a sour taste in your mouth and the feeling that liquid is moving up and down in your chest. These sensations can be unpleasant, and they may cause you to feel nauseous — another common symptom of acid reflux.
Common Nighttime Symptoms of Acid Reflux
Disrupted Sleep: When you’re lying down sleeping and experience acid reflux, your body is relaxed. This makes it easier for stomach acid and partially digested food to flow back up through your esophagus. Your body’s position also results in prolonged contact between stomach acid and your esophagus tissue, which results in pain that makes sleeping difficult.
Chronic Cough: If the acidic liquid rises higher up in your esophagus, which it’s likely to do while you’re lying flat during sleep or winding down at night, it can cause choking and coughing. This is because it irritates your throat and mouth, which your body tries to clear away with a cough. The need to cough can wake you up and keep you from sleeping well.
Asthma: This condition and acid reflux often occur together, and they can both cause the other to worsen. When stomach acid leaks back into your throat, it can then enter your lungs directly. Aspirating stomach acid this way can irritate your airway, leading to inflammation that causes an asthma attack. The regurgitated stomach acid can also trigger nerves in your esophagus, and your brain may respond to this stimulation by ramping up mucus production in your airway.
Laryngitis: The prolonged exposure to stomach acid that happens when you experience reflux while lying down can also irritate your vocal cords. In some cases, it can create ulcer sores that can take weeks to heal. The swelling of your vocal cords keeps them from opening and closing smoothly like they normally do, and this make give you a sore throat and cause you to lose your voice until the irritation subsides.
Treating Acid Reflux
If you find yourself experiencing acid reflux on a regular basis or you’re taking over-the-counter antacid medications more than twice a week, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor. They can help determine more effective treatments, such as medications and lifestyle changes, that can help lessen the frequency with which you experience symptoms and prevent your acid reflux from leading to other more serious health conditions.
If your reflux is mild or you’re not already using over-the-counter medicines that neutralize stomach acid to prevent it from irritating your esophagus, your doctor will likely recommend that you try these initially and see how well they work. If you need more relief than these provide, your doctor may prescribe you medications called H-2 receptor blockers that prevent your stomach from producing as much acid. For severe cases, or when your acid reflux has caused esophagus ulcers, your doctor may have you take a proton-pump inhibitor. This type of medication blocks acid production better than H-2 receptor blockers and encourages healing of your damaged esophagus tissue.
Medications usually work well at controlling acid reflux symptoms, but changing your daily habits may lessen your reflux frequency without the need to take strong prescription drugs. Losing weight means there’s less pressure on your stomach, which keeps it from pressing upward and leaking acid into your esophagus. Smoking cigarettes can keep your esophageal sphincter from constricting fully, so there’s no better time to quit. You should also avoid lying down for three hours after you’ve eaten to give your body enough time to digest your food and begin moving it out of your stomach. If you notice that you experience reflux primarily after you eat certain foods, avoid those triggers as much as possible. With effective treatment, you can experience relief from acid reflux.