Is It Heartburn or Acid Reflux?

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Signs of Acid Reflux

The red-flag signs of reflux have to do with frequency and severity: If heartburn occurs more than twice a week, keeps you from falling asleep or wakes you in the middle of the night, or if there is a persistent lump in your throat, you sometimes have trouble swallowing or have a chronic cough or throat pain that does not respond to antibiotics or other treatments, you may have GERD.

Fortunately, awareness of GERD is growing, at least partly spurred by direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns by drug manufacturers. In the past year, over-the-counter antacid tablet sales (excluding sales at Wal-Mart) chalked up more than $900 million, representing about 5 percent of all over-the-counter U.S. drug sales.

Make no mistake, however: Though GERD is common, the dangers of brushing it off as only heartburn can be serious. For one thing, it can cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety: One and a half million people went to the emergency room last year thinking they were having a heart attack when in fact acid reflux caused their chest pain. Left untreated, GERD can have dire consequences, including narrowing of the esophagus that may lead to food getting lodged there, and throat lesions called "Barrett's esophagus" that can lead to esophageal cancer.

Are You at Risk for GERD?

GERD often happens because the sphincter muscles that separate the stomach from the esophagus don't close properly, for reasons that are unclear, allowing caustic stomach acid to flow back up into the esophagus, sometimes traveling as far up as the nasal passages, possibly causing a sinus infection or asthma. Although GERD affects people of every ethnicity, age, and economic and geographic group, pregnant women especially are at high risk: Two-thirds of them will experience reflux at some point in their pregnancies, usually during the third trimester. But by and large, GERD is a condition of the middle-aged.

Continued on page 3:  Common Triggers of Reflux


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