By Gerra Lewis
Q. Sometimes I experience heartburn after eating. Is there a difference between gastroesophageal reflux (GER) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)?
A. During normal swallowing, the esophagus muscle contracts, pushing food into the stomach. A band of muscle between the esophagus and stomach called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) relaxes to allow food to pass into the stomach and contracts to act as a barrier to prevent stomach acid and stomach contents from entering the esophagus.
GER occurs when the LES is compromised and relaxes at inappropriate times, resulting in the backflow of acid and stomach contents into the esophagus. Occasional GER is common in adults, especially after eating large meals, hard-to-digest or acidic foods. The most common symptom of GER is heartburn, but coughing, wheezing or difficulty swallowing can also be present.
GERD is a more-serious, long-lasting form of GER. Reflux symptoms that occur more than two times per week for several weeks may indicate GERD and should be evaluated by a health care professional. In addition to reflux, symptoms of GERD may include chronic sore throat, laryngitis, throat clearing and chronic cough. An alarming symptom requiring prompt attention is the sensation of food sticking in the esophagus.
The acid reflux that accompanies GERD has the potential to injure the lining of the esophagus. Those with GERD are at greater risk for serious complications such as esophageal stricture, an abnormal narrowing of the esophagus, or Barrett’s esophagus, a potentially precancerous disease involving cellular changes in the esophagus.
Common risk factors for GERD include smoking, alcohol use, obesity, pregnancy, diabetes and hiatal hernia (a condition in which the opening in your diaphragm allows the upper portion of the stomach to move up into your chest). Use of certain medications such as NSAIDS, oral corticosteroids and calcium channel blockers can also be a risk factor.
Both GER and GERD often respond to lifestyle changes. Dietary modifications such as eating smaller meals, avoiding caffeine, chocolate, alcohol and greasy or spicy foods may be helpful. Cessation of smoking and avoidance of other nicotine-containing products is beneficial. It is important to refrain from lying down after eating. For those who are overweight, one of the most effective strategies is weight loss.
Various medications can be used to treat GER/GERD. Over-the-counter antacids usually relieve mild symptoms. H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are two different classes of drugs that affect gastric acid production. These medications are available OTC or by prescription, depending on the dose and dosage form.Talk with your doctor before using PPIs for extended periods. In severe cases of GERD, surgical procedures can be performed to repair a hiatal hernia or strengthen the LES.
Gerra Lewis volunteers with the Grillo Center, which offers free, confidential research to assist in health understanding and decisions. To use this service contact grillocenter.org or 720-854-7293. No research or assistance should be interpreted as medical advice. We encourage informed consultation with a health practitioner.
Where to find it
HealthlineGoogle: healthline ger or gerd
International Foundation for Gastrointestinal DisordersGoogle: iffgd intro to gerd
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney DiseasesGoogle: niddk gerd symptoms
NIH News in HealthGoogle: nih news feeling the burn