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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Reflux

by | May 17, 2022 | Everyday Health

Whether you were slamming down an ice cold beer or your mama’s spaghetti, no food or beverage is impervious to the burning pain and discomfort of acid reflux. But when a few isolated experiences of reflux evolve into a recurring health problem that just won’t disappear, it may be time to consider consulting a healthcare professional for a potential diagnosis of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Casually referred to as reflux, heartburn, or acid indigestion, gastroesophageal reflux disease affects an estimated 11.6% of people in Australia. That’s without including the number of people living with undiagnosed GERD. For that, meta-analysis data suggests the community prevalence of GERD is 10-20% of the population in the Western world.

Since giving up the favourable pastime of eating will lead to side effects more disastrous than heartburn and indigestion, let’s find out the symptoms, causes, and treatments for reflux. Because we know you want to have your cake, and eat it without nasty side effects, too.


What is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic gastrointestinal condition characterised by a noticeable regurgitation of gastric acid and contents from the stomach into the oesophagus, the tube connecting your throat to your stomach (known as the food pipe). The upward flow of acid backwash commonly causes heartburn and a sour taste in the throat and mouth.

When reflux occurs more than twice per week over a period of a few weeks, it may be considered a chronic condition of gastroesophageal reflux disease. At this stage it’s important to seek treatment to relieve symptoms via a healthcare professional. If left untreated, GERD may damage the digestive system and manifest into more serious health problems.


What are the main symptoms of reflux?

Globally there are more than half a million people living with reflux, and each one of those people will present with a unique set of reflux symptoms to them. The most common symptoms of acid reflux include:

  • Heartburn

  • Regurgitation (food travels back into your mouth via the oesophagus)

  • Chest pain

  • Sore throat and/or hoarseness

  • Burning sensation in the chest or throat

  • Frequent sour taste in your throat or mouth

  • The feeling of food caught in your throat, or a lump in your throat

  • Coughing (persistent cough or dry cough)

  • Asthma symptoms

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Belching

  • Vomiting

What is heartburn?

Heartburn is a common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease. Characterised by a painful burning sensation that targets the middle of the chest, heartburn occurs when stomach acid causes an irritation of the lining of the oesophagus.

The burning pain associated with heartburn can happen at any time, but can worsen immediately after eating, or when taking a horizontal position of lying down after eating.

What causes GERD?

When it comes to gastroesophageal reflux disease, most cases are caused by a problem with one of the esophageal muscles called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Located at the southern end of the food pipe, the lower esophageal sphincter has the job of keeping stomach contents from rising back up through the oesophagus. And you can bet it’s this small muscle that’s responsible for the heartburn and GERD symptoms experienced.

That’s because the lower oesophageal sphincter functions like a valve. When it loses its ability to close properly, gastric acid from the stomach flows back up into the oesophagus causing heartburn, belching, chest pain, and sometimes more severe symptoms of GERD.

How is GERD treated?

There are a number of options available to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ranging from:

Prescription medications

Prescription drug treatments for people living with persistent heartburn and acid reflux include proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and H2 blockers. A proton pump inhibitor works by reducing stomach acid production and potential damage caused by acid reflux. H2 blockers function similarly to proton pump inhibitors.

Over the counter medications

For people who experience heartburn, indigestion, or minor reflux infrequently, over the counter medications called antacids help provide rapid, short-term relief by decreasing the acidity of stomach contents.

Efficacy of antacids will vary from person to person, and regular usage should be discussed with your doctor.

Alginate drugs (Gaviscon)

You’re probably familiar with well-known heartburn treatment, Gaviscon. Admittedly we’ve all seen the ads on TV. Gaviscon is a type of drug that works by creating a barrier against acidic stomach contents.

By forming a foamy gel of alginic acid at the top of the gastric pool, Gaviscon removes the power of reflux. Anything that passes through will consist of alginic acid rather than the damaging stomach acid.

Lifestyle changes

Gastro oesophageal reflux disease treatment may involve making a few minor lifestyle modifications, such as improving your posture, wearing loose-fitting clothing, losing weight if overweight or obese, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding increased pressure on the abdomen (from exercising or wearing tight pants or belts), quitting smoking, eating small meals, and avoiding certain trigger foods if they’re known. Your doctor will help you determine which lifestyle changes may benefit symptoms of GERD.


What foods should I avoid if I have GERD?

Minor dietary adjustments may provide a quick and simple fix to relieve heartburn and other symptoms of reflux. Certain foods that are considered trigger foods of reflux include:

  • Spicy foods
  • Deep fried foods
  • Fatty foods
  • Tomatoes and tomato-based sauces
  • Garlic and onions
  • Citrus fruits
  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint
  • Coffee
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Too much alcohol

Logging your meals in a food journal will help to track what foods are causing gastroesophageal reflux, so you can refer back at any time.

How is GERD diagnosed?

Heartburn and reflux are relatively easy to self-diagnose. For gastroesophageal reflux disease, the leading sign of diagnosis relies on noticing no improvement in symptoms of GERD despite trialling acid reflux medications, and lifestyle changes.

Consulting with a doctor or gastroenterologist will help you achieve a formal diagnosis. These medical specialists may investigate your symptoms of GERD via:

  • Upper endoscopy, a medical procedure where a tiny fibre-optic camera is used to look closely at the oesophagus, stomach and part of the small intestines
  • Biopsy, a medical procedure where a small tissue sample is retrieved for further laboratory analysis
  • Barium X-ray, a medical procedure where a chalky liquid is swallowed to provide contrast on imaging of the esophagus, stomach, and upper parts of the small intestines
  • Impendance monitoring, a medical procedure where rate of fluid movement along the esophagus is measured
  • pH monitoring, a medical procedure where acidity is measured


Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog. Reliance on any information provided in this blog is solely at your own risk. The health and medical information on this site is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied.