Is It Heartburn or Acid Reflux?
Could You Have GERD?
As anyone who has ever gobbled down a Thanksgiving feast knows, you're as likely to have a little post-meal indigestion as you are to be served pumpkin pie for dessert. Certainly, after my all-the-trimmings meal last year, I was prepared for some stomach upset. What actually happened was a lot more dramatic and much scarier. Hours after going to bed, I woke up violently coughing and choking on what felt like something lodged in my throat. My husband and I were terrified: I was even having trouble taking a breath. As an asthma sufferer, I thought at first I was having an asthma attack, but my symptoms were unlike any I had ever experienced. Thankfully, within 20 minutes, the episode subsided and I went back to sleep, shaken and worried.
First thing the next morning, I called my internist and was soon on my way to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who put a scope down my throat and quickly made a diagnosis: gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). I was surprised to find out that I had most likely had this potentially dangerous problem, also known as acid reflux, for a very long time.
The nagging cough that I had for years attributed to my asthma was actually caused by stomach acid that, over time, had corroded the tissues in my esophagus. But I'm far from the only person to have misread the initial symptoms. GERD is mistaken by the majority of sufferers -- and there may be as many as 14 to 20 million of them in the United States -- for garden-variety heartburn or indigestion and is often misdiagnosed by physicians as well. The confusion is understandable, since GERD often presents itself as chronic indigestion, with the all-too-familiar litany of symptoms: a burning sensation behind the breastbone, chest pressure, and a sour taste in the mouth sometimes accompanied by embarrassing belching.