Gastrointestinal Acid Reflux Disease (GERD): Symptoms & Long-Term Effects

Gastrointestinal acid reflux disease (GERD) is commonly referred to as acid reflux disease or simply acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid backs up (reflux) into the esophagus. Gastrointestinal acid reflux is a chronic disease that is distinguishable from occasional heartburn.

Common Symptoms of Acid Reflux Disease

The usual presenting symptoms of acid reflux include the following.

  • Frequent and persistent heartburn that occurs at least 3 days each week
  • Burning chest pain, especially in the lower chest at the lower end of the breast bone
  • A sour or bitter taste in the mouth
  • Symptoms that worsen after eating and when laying down or bending over (or wake you up if you are sleeping)
  • Throat burn or a bitter taste in your throat, especially in the morning after rising from a prone position
  • Coughing, wheezing, hoarseness or altered voice caused by the throat burn
  • Food coming back into your mouth after swallowing
  • A burning, gaseous feeling that bursts up from the stomach into your chest, especially soon after eating (may be accompanied by belching)
  • Symptoms that worsen after eating and when laying down or bending over (or wake you up if you are sleeping)

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, note whether certain activities or foods make them worse. What are they? Are the symptoms improved by taking antacids, drinking milk, or standing up from a reclining position or propping yourself up on pillows and waiting for a few minutes?

What Causes the Burning Sensation & Symptoms?

In some people, the lower esophageal sphincter, which is a band of tissue that prevents stomach acid from backing up into your esophagus (the swallowing tube in your chest that connects your throat to your stomach), is either poorly functioning or not functioning at all. This functional problem can be intermittent or more persistent. So when you eat—especially spicy foods—stomach acid, which is normally present in the stomach to help food digestion, backs up into the esophagus region. Many people experience these symptoms once in a while, but if you experience symptoms that are frequent, disruptive and/or last for months, treatment is in order. Obesity, hiatal hernias and asthma are a few common problems that typically make gastrointestinal acid reflux disease worse.

Caution: If the pain or pattern of heartburn is not clear, you should ask your physician to rule out heart disease as a cause.

Long-Term Effects of Acid Reflux

In the short-term, acid reflux causes discomfort, but if left untreated, it can cause inflammation of the esophagus, potentially leading to more serious problems. Two fairly common conditions that can occur as a result of acid reflux include Barrett’s esophagus and ulcers.

Barrett's esophagus is the conversion of normal cells in the esophagus to a possible pre-malignant condition. Ulcers in the esophagus are injured areas in the lining of the esophagus that can bleed, be very painful and cause swallowing issues.