7 Dangers of Frequent Heartburn

By

Chris Iliades, MD

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Man clutching stomach

Heartburn occurs when stomach juices backflow up into the esophagus—the food pipe to your stomach. Most people experience heartburn some time in their life; others experience regularly. If you're having frequent heartburn, talk to your doctor. Heartburn can cause serious problems and it may be a symptom of a more serious condition called gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) also known as acid reflux. Here are several reasons not to ignore your heartburn. 

1. Poor Nutrition

Certain foods, even healthy foods, can trigger heartburn. Acidic food such as citrus fruits or juices like orange or grapefruit are high in acid. If you stay away from them to avoid heartburn, you could be missing out on vitamin C and other important nutrients. Work with your doctor to make sure you don't develop deficiencies. Other heartburn triggers to avoid include high-fat foods, coffee, beverages that contain caffeine, peppermint, onions, and chocolate.

2. Sleep Disturbances

Normally, a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) keeps gastric juices in your stomach. But when you lie flat at night, especially after you've eaten, these juices can seep up through the LES. This can result in heartburn that wakes you up at night. You may even wake up coughing or choking if acid gets up to your throat. Most people with daytime heartburn also get nighttime heartburn. To prevent this problem, eat a small dinner meal and stop eating at least three hours before sleep, raise the head of your bed, and sleep on your left side. 

3. Esophageal Damage

Heartburn occurs when gastric juices flow backwards into your esophagus—the long tube that carries food from your throat to your stomach. Frequent heartburn can harm the lining of the esophagus and result in a condition called esophagitis. Over time, the esophagus can develop ulcers and scarring. This type of damage can increase your risk for esophageal cancer—another reason why it is very important to let your doctor know about frequent heartburn. Medicine is available to help prevent esophagitis. 

4. Difficulty Swallowing and Sore Throat

If stomach acids go all the way up your esophagus, they can reach the back of your throat. This condition is called laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR). Besides heartburn, you might feel symptoms like a lump in your throat or a sore throat. You may constantly need to clear your throat or have trouble swallowing. Lifestyle changes can usually correct LPR. Try eating a bland diet and stop eating three hours before bed. If you are overweight, losing weight may help relieve pressure on your stomach. Also skip caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes. 

5. Hoarseness

Heartburn stems from stomach acids flowing backwards into your esophagus. With laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) the stomach acids make it up as high as your throat and may spill over and go down into your larynx—your voice box. This can cause the swelling and irritation known as laryngitis. Your vocal cords will swell up, causing a hoarse voice. Hoarseness is another symptom of LPR. Lifestyle changes can usually reverse this cause of hoarseness. 

6. Damaged Teeth

When reflux makes it all the way into your mouth, it can cause bad breath and damage tooth enamel. Bad breath is not dangerous, but, losing the enamel that protects your teeth is. The acid from your stomach can eat away at tooth enamel especially while you're asleep. Normally, saliva in your mouth protects your teeth, but you make less saliva when you sleep. And, when you lie flat, more stomach acid can flow up into your mouth. If you have frequent heartburn, ask your dentist if there are any signs that you are losing enamel. 

7. Lung Disease 

Several types of lung disease have been linked to acid reflux. For instance, aspiration pneumonia occurs when gastric juices get past the vocal cords and into the lungs. Chronic cough also can stem from reflux. Experts estimate that acid reflux is the cause of chronic cough as much as 40% of the time. Reflux has also been linked to asthma and to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). If you have lung symptoms like wheezing, coughing or trouble breathing, talk to your doctor. Let your doctor know if you also have symptoms of heartburn or reflux. There could be a connection. 

Because frequent heartburn can be a symptom of a more serious condition, talk to your doctor about all your symptoms. Ask whether you might have GERD.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: May 27, 2016

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Medical References

  1. An Integrative Approach on GERD, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. http://www.fammed.wisc.edu/sites/default/files/webfm-uploads/documents/outreach/im/module_gerd_patie...
  2. Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER) and gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/gerd/
  3. Laryngopharyngeal Reflux (LPR), Cleveland Clinic. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/head-neck/diseases-conditions/hic-laryngopharyngeal-reflux-lpr.aspx
  4. Reflux Changes to the Larynx, Johns Hopkins Medicine. http://www.gbmc.org/RefluxChangestotheLarynx
  5. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease and Tooth Erosion, International Journal of Dentistry. http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijd/2012/479850/
  6. GERD and Sleep, National Sleep Foundation. http://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems/gerd-and-sleep
  7. Heartburn, American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/heartburn.printerview.all.html

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