Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux, is a common condition in which stomach acid flows up into the esophagus. This causes a burning, painful feeling in the chest more commonly known as heartburn or acid indigestion.
The stomach makes a strong acid to help break down food and to protect the body from bacteria. The stomach is not harmed by the acid because it has a special lining. The esophagus is the tube that takes food from the mouth to the stomach. It does not have the special lining, so it will be irritated by the stomach acid. Normally a special ring of muscle, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), keeps the stomach’s contents from flowing up into the esophagus. Acid reflux happens most often when the LES is not working correctly.
Symptoms of acid reflux include heartburn, bitter or sour taste in the mouth, difficulty swallowing, a chronic dry cough, wheezing and hoarseness. Heartburn usually occurs after a meal, lasts several hours and worsens while lying down. Although it is not clear what causes the LES to weaken, certain factors seem to increase the risk of developing acid reflux including obesity, pregnancy, having a hiatal hernia, smoking, drinking alcohol and caffeine, and taking certain medications. Certain types of foods may also trigger an heartburn episode.
Most people manage occasional heartburn with over-the-counter antacids and medications which decrease stomach acid production. Lifestyle changes such as losing weight, changing diet and drinking habits, exercising and stopping smoking may also help. If you are experiencing acid reflux more than 2 times per week, talk to your doctor because you may have a more long-term condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If you or a loved one is experiencing the symptoms of acid reflux, talk to your doctor about which treatment options are right for you. Support groups are also a good source of information.