GERD: Its Signs and Symptoms

Heartburn is the symptom most commonly associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), but it's not the only symptom. GERD can also cause bad breath, sore throat, breathing problems, difficulty swallowing, coughing and more. Here's why.

Heartburn is the symptom most commonly associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Image Credit: Doucefleur/iStock/GettyImages

What Is GERD?

GERD is a health condition in which the gastroesophageal sphincter, a circular band of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus, gets most of the blame. Normally, the muscle relaxes when you swallow, to allow foods and liquids to enter the stomach.

When you finish swallowing, the muscle closes again and the contents remain in the stomach. But with GERD, the sphincter weakens or relaxes when it shouldn't, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), and this allows stomach acid to come back up into the esophagus.

In addition to irritation of the esophagus, heartburn and regurgitation, there are a wide range of other symptoms. It's also important to note that while GERD symptoms often occur after eating too much or too fast, you can actually have GERD symptoms on an empty stomach. That's because there's always acid in the stomach, even when it's empty, explains Hardeep Singh, MD, a gastroenterologist with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California.

Oral Health Concerns

Acid reflux leads to an increased risk for halitosis, or bad breath, according to an October 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dentistry. The research connects the cause of bad breath to the gases and stomach acids that flow back up into the esophagus, giving you not only a bad taste but odor, too.

This acid reflux also has a negative impact on teeth. According to the report, tooth erosion affects as many as 44 percent of people with GERD over the course of the disease.

Read more: The 10 Worst Foods for Acid Reflux

Changes in Taste and Smell

Research published in July 2017 in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility found that people with GERD often say that foods taste and smell differently than they did before they had the condition.

For some people, these changes lead to avoiding certain foods and developing nutritional deficiencies. The level of severity of GERD symptoms appears to have an impact on how much taste and smell sensations change.

Possible Respiratory Problems

A June 2017 study published in Medical Archives reports that stomach reflux occurs both within the esophagus and outside of the esophagus. Stomach content reflux outside of the esophagus is likely to affect your lungs, causing irritation or infection.

The NIDDK details an extensive list of issues that may occur as a result of breathing stomach acid into your lungs: dry cough, wheezing, sore throat, the feeling of a lump in your throat, difficulty swallowing, losing your voice, asthma, chest congestion, lung infection and fluid in the lungs.

Finding Relief From GERD Symptoms

An important part of easing heartburn and other symptoms of GERD is making smart lifestyle choices, says Dr. Singh. Avoid diet triggers such as caffeine, alcohol, peppermint, spicy foods, acidic foods, fatty foods and chocolate. Other modifications recommended by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, include:

  • Eating smaller meals
  • Not lying down for three to four hours after eating
  • Quitting smoking
  • Losing weight if you're overweight
  • Not wearing clothing that's tight across the waist

To get relief from heartburn fast, there are many over-the-counter (OTC) medications you can try, says Dr. Singh. "Tums, which is bicarbonate, may temporarily relieve GERD symptoms, and OTC antacids such as Pepcid can provide quick relief," he says. There are also prescription medications that will work, but they take longer to kick in and can take one to two days to see a peak effect, he adds.

Talk with your doctor if you have persistent symptoms of GERD to determine if testing and other treatment options should be considered. Left untreated, GERD can become more serious and lead to other health problems, reports the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Read more: Apple Cider Vinegar Benefits for Acid Reflux

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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