Heartburn is something we all experience. Maybe it occurs after your favorite fast food meal or a delicious spicy dish. Or perhaps your heartburn surfaces when you lie down right after eating. Either way, heartburn is usually nothing to worry about—unless it persists and comes with other more unusual symptoms.
Chronic acid reflux (also called GERD) can lead to several severe complications and often requires medical attention. That’s why it’s important to recognize and understand unusual heartburn symptoms early.
Understanding Acid Reflux and Heartburn
When eating, food typically goes down the esophagus, passes through a valve and into the stomach, and then travels into the small intestine. However, the contents of the stomach can sometimes travel back up the esophagus instead of continuing on to the intestines. This backflow of acidic liquid is called acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux (GER).
Acid reflux in Orange County, CA, is fairly common and can be caused by eating high-fat or spicy food. Other causes include obesity, smoking, and regular alcohol consumption.Most pregnant women also experience acid reflux by the third trimester, but it usually goes away after birth.
The most common symptom of acid reflux is heartburn, a burning sensation in the esophagus and the back of the throat. Over 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month, showing just how prevalent it is.
However, when acid reflux and heartburn become a regular occurrence, they can lead to unusual symptoms and more serious complications. At this point, acid reflux is usually called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
Beyond Heartburn: Unusual Symptoms of Acid Reflux
Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia)
Dysphagia—or trouble swallowing—is one of the most common symptoms of advanced acid reflux and GERD.According to a 2020 report, about half of patients with heartburn and regurgitation issues also experience dysphagia.
It’s important to note that dysphagia isn’t just struggling to swallow a big piece of food—although that can be part of it. Swallowing is a complex process that occurs in the mouth, throat, and esophagus, so dysphagia can occur in any of those areas.
With acid reflux patients, dysphagia may often occur in the esophagus. The acidic backflow can irritate and inflame the esophagus, causing it to become narrow. Of course, a narrower esophagus makes it more difficult for food to pass through.
Many conditions—from asthma to a viral infection—can cause coughing. However, when the cough is persistent and accompanies other symptoms like heartburn and dysphagia, it could be caused by acid reflux.
When the acidic backflow rises up from the stomach, it can irritate the esophagus and cause coughing. Patients may also start coughing if they breathe in the acidic liquid.
Laryngitis or Hoarse Voice
While acid reflux commonly irritates the esophagus, the backflow can travel as far up to the throat and mouth. When this happens, the acid can irritate the vocal cords and cause laryngitis.
The most common symptom of laryngitis is a hoarse voice—or no voice at all. However, people can also experience a cough with laryngitis, which contributes to the chronic cough mentioned above.
The typical acid reflux symptom is heartburn, which can be described as burning or pain in the chest. This pain can become very intense—especially when coughing or taking a deep breath—as acid reflux worsens and further irritates the esophagus.
While called heartburn, the pain is not related to the heart. Cardiac pain is usually deep, consistent pain that feels like something is crushing or constricting the chest. On the contrary, acid reflux-related chest pain is usually a brief, intense pain closer to the surface of the chest.
Unexpected Weight Loss
The combination of dysphagia, chest pain, and overall discomfort can cause a loss of appetite. People may avoid certain foods or cut back on meals altogether to avoid the unwanted symptoms, which then results in weight loss.
The Dangers of Ignoring Unusual Symptoms
Acid reflux in Orange County, CA, may seem like a harmless condition, especially since everyone has experienced it at some point in their life. However, untreated acid reflux can become quite serious.
Once acid reflux starts occurring more than twice a week, it’s considered gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Patients often experience regular heartburn due to the constant acidic backflow, and this can damage the esophagus and gastrointestinal tract.
For example, the acid can leave the esophagus inflamed and irritated, leading to esophagitis. Patients with esophagitis experience tearing and scarring along the esophageal tissues, and they may even have gastrointestinal bleeding. A similar issue is Barrett’s esophagus, which refers to damage in the esophageal lining. If left untreated, Barrett’s esophagus can lead to esophageal cancer.
The inflammation and scarring from esophagitis or Barrett’s esophagus can also cause peptic strictures, or the narrowing of the digestive tract. These strictures then make it hard for patients to swallow and eat a regular diet.
Managing and Treating Acid Reflux
For early-stage acid reflux management (and even prevention), the best option is simply making a few lifestyle changes.
These can start with dietary adjustments to avoid foods known to cause acid reflux, like citric fruits, chocolate, spicy food, and fast food. While some patients may just need to cut back on their consumption, others with more consistent acid reflux symptoms should consider eliminating certain foods altogether.
Patients should also evaluate their drinking habits. Alcohol can relax the valve separating the stomach and esophagus, allowing the backflow to easily enter the esophagus and cause reflux. Similarly, smoking weakens the valve and facilitates acid reflux.
A GERD diet, combined with reduced alcohol consumption, can help patients maintain a healthy weight and reduce weight-related acid reflux. Low-impact exercises are also a great way to help people maintain a healthy weight while also reducing symptoms like heartburn. Patients should avoid high-intensity activities since they can actually cause acid reflux.
The go-to option for many people is over-the-counter antacids like Tums. These can work for occasional heartburn symptoms but shouldn’t be used for long-term treatment.
If heartburn persists, patients should talk with an experienced gastroenterologist about prescription medication options. There are certain drugs that can simultaneously relieve acid reflux symptoms while also healing the esophagus, but patients should discuss this option with a specialist to ensure it’s the best treatment plan.
When acid reflux becomes a chronic problem (called GERD), specialists may need to complete diagnostic procedures to see if there are any complications or underlying conditions, like a hiatal hernia. Some of these tests typically involve minor procedures like an upper endoscopy or a pH probe test.
If the gastroenterologist identifies the problem to be the valve separating the stomach and the esophagus, they may recommend anti-reflux surgery. This procedure is typically performed laparoscopically for a quick recovery. The surgeon makes small incisions in the abdomen and inserts long tube-like instruments with a camera. They then work to reinforce the valve at the stomach’s entrance by wrapping a part of the stomach around the esophagus.
When to See a Doctor for Acid Reflux in Orange County, CA
The best way to prevent complications and long-term esophageal damage is to seek medical help as soon as possible. As soon as patients start to notice that their acid reflux has become a regular occurrence, they should reach out to a specialist. An experienced gastroenterologist can help the patient establish a preventative treatment plan before the acid reflux progresses into something worse.
If patients have tried lifestyle changes and medication but still have consistent acid reflux, they should also contact a specialist to see if there’s an underlying cause. Likewise, patients experiencing extreme symptoms like chest pain, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and vomiting should seek immediate medical attention.
Even though acid reflux in Orange County, CA, seems like nothing to worry about, you should take it very seriously—especially when accompanied by unusual symptoms like coughing and difficulty swallowing.
If you experience any of these symptoms and persistent heartburn, make sure to reach out to an acid reflux or heartburn specialist as soon as possible. They can help identify whether your acid reflux has become something more serious and needs medical attention.
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