Having occasional liquid or gas reflux is considered normal. When it happens frequently, particularly when not trying to belch, and causes other symptoms, it is considered a medical problem or disease and can increase your chances of developing esophageal cancer.

The stomach produces acid and enzymes to digest food. When this mixture refluxes into the esophagus more frequently than normal, or for a longer period of time than normal, it may produce symptoms. These symptoms, often called acid reflux, are usually described by people as heartburn, indigestion, or "gas." The symptoms typically consist of a burning sensation below and behind the lower part of the breastbone or sternum.

  • Almost everyone has experienced these symptoms at least once, typically after overeating. GERD symptoms can also result from being overweight, eating certain types of foods, or being pregnant. In most people, GERD symptoms last only a short time and require no treatment at all. More persistent symptoms are often quickly relieved by over-the-counter acid-reducing agents such as antacids.
  • Other drugs used to relieve GERD symptoms are antisecretory drugs such as histamine2 (H2) blockers or proton pump inhibitors.

People who have GERD symptoms frequently should consult a physician. Other diseases can have similar symptoms, and prescription medications in combination with other measures might be needed to reduce reflux. GERD that is untreated over a long period of time can lead to complications, such as an ulcer in the esophagus that could cause bleeding. Another common complication is scar tissue that blocks the movement of swallowed food and drink through the esophagus; this condition is called stricture. Barrett's esophagus, a condition in which the normal esophageal lining is replaced by a new lining, is another complication of GERD.

Esophageal reflux may also cause certain less common symptoms, such as hoarseness or chronic cough, and sometimes provokes conditions such as asthma. While most patients find that lifestyle modifications and acid-blocking drugs relieve their symptoms, doctors occasionally recommend surgery. Overall, more than 60 million American adults experience GERD, making it one of the most common medical conditions.

GERD and Barretts

The exact causes of Barrett's esophagus are not known, but it is thought to be caused in part by the same factors that cause GERD. Although people who do not have heartburn can have Barrett's esophagus, it is found about three to five times more often in people with this condition.

Research has identified a number of risk factors associated with Barrett's esophagus:

  • Age - Barrett's esophagus is most commonly diagnosed in middle-aged and older adults; the average age at diagnosis is 55 years. Children can develop Barrett's esophagus, but rarely before the age of 5 years.
  • Gender - Men are more commonly diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus than women.
  • Ethnic background - Barrett's esophagus is equally common in white and Hispanic populations and is uncommon in black and Asian populations.
  • Lifestyle - Smokers are more commonly diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus than nonsmokers.
  • Symptoms - Barrett's esophagus itself produces no symptoms. Instead, most patients with this condition seek help because of symptoms of GERD, including heartburn, regurgitation of stomach contents, and, less commonly, difficulty swallowing.

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