GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition that results from mucosal damage that occurs when stomach acid repeatedly backflows into the esophagus, irritating the esophageal lining. Abnormal relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, a muscular ring that holds the stomach closed, is the most common cause of GERD. The condition can cause a variety of symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
Heartburn is a burning sensation that tends to develop in the upper and midportion of the chest, and much like GERD, it is caused by gastric acid rising up and irritating the lining of the esophagus. In some situations, the acid reaches the throat. Most people find that laying down and bending over intensify the discomfort. Doctors often prescribe antacids to relieve heartburn; however, if this symptom occurs frequently, other treatment methods, such as lifestyle changes, are safer than continued use of medications.
Some individuals with GERD experience regurgitation: food or drink moving upwards into the throat after eating. It can cause nausea and occasionally vomiting, although vomiting is more common in children. Doctors also find heartburn and regurgitation to be potentially indicative of GERD.
Dyspepsia, or indigestion, is a discomfort in the upper part of the stomach and symptoms include pain, burning, bloating, feelings of fullness, excessive burping, and, in some cases, vomiting. Some people with GERD experience these symptoms not only after meals but also throughout the day.
People with GERD can also experience dysphagia, a problem in swallowing food or liquid or being unable to swallow anything at all. While people of any age may develop dysphagia, this symptom is mostly seen in older individuals. Difficulty swallowing is not a typical sign of GERD and could indicate other problems or serious underlying conditions, including narrowing of the esophagus, a tumor in the esophagus, stroke, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis.
Understandably, the persistent regurgitation of stomach acid irritates the throat, and people with GERD may experience a sore throat and vocal hoarseness. If the condition begins affecting the throat on a lasting or regular basis, the individual should speak to a medical provider to learn about treatment options to prevent complications.
In addition to soreness, when stomach acid rises in the esophagus and reaches the throat, people with GERD may develop a sour taste in the mouth from the pungent nature of gastric secretions. Brushing the teeth, using mouthwash regularly, chewing gum, and increasing the amount of drinking water can help counteract this effect. Some experts recommend home remedies, such as rinsing with cinnamon water or eating cloves, peppermint, or licorice, to reduce the taste. However, peppermint can worsen GERD in some people.
Difficulty breathing is one of the more frightening symptoms of GERD and can lead to lasting and dangerous respiratory complications. Individuals with the condition may experience bronchospasms and aspiration as the acid makes its way back into the esophagus, leading to shortness of breath. People with asthma may find their symptoms worsened by reflux attacks. In fact, some doctors link GERD to adult-onset, treatment-resistant asthma. However, breathing problems are not a common sign of GERD and require medical evaluation to look for other causes.
GERD can cause sudden excessive saliva, a natural physical reaction to the presence of irritants in the mouth and throat. This symptom is the body’s way of flushing away the regurgitated stomach acid. Water brash is a condition that can develop when acid from the stomach mixes with excess saliva during reflux, and it is also responsible for the sour taste in the mouth.
Acid reflux into the esophagus can cause a chronic dry cough. The acid stimulates the nerves in the lower throat, causing pain and a reaction meant to remove the irritating substance. Though coughing can persist during the day — without the congestion typical of a respiratory infection — when a person is lying down at night, gravity is no longer on their side and the symptom can become worse.
People with unexplained nausea are often diagnosed with GERD. This symptom develops as a natural reaction to the movement of stomach acid in the esophagus, which can activate the gag reflex and upset the digestive system. Often, over-the-counter antinauseants can ease nausea caused by GERD.