While GER is a minor irritant for most people at one time or another, GERD is a more serious disease that, left untreated, can result in serious health complications. Knowing which you have can be difficult, but is important to distinguish to get proper treatment.
What Is GER?
GER, also called acid reflux, heartburn, and acid indigestion, occurs when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus. This causes a burning and tightening sensation in the chest and upper stomach area.
The esophagus muscle contracts to push down food into the stomach during normal swallowing. Then, it opens a band or valve called the “lower esophageal sphincter” (LES) at the entrance to the stomach. This muscle allows the food to pass through.
Once the food has been delivered, the LES closes to keep the contents of the stomach—mainly the digestive acids—from coming back up into the esophagus.
The LES doesn’t remain closed like it should during periods of GER. This allows some acids to creep back up and can result in irritation and burning in the lining of the esophagus.
GER is fairly common in infants who have not yet fully matured, as the LES muscle needs more time to develop. This is why babies typically spit up and burp after eating. However, GER can become serious if it lasts beyond the one-year mark. This can indicate that your baby has GERD.
GER or heartburn is also fairly common in adults, particularly after eating large meals, foods that are hard to digest, or foods that encourage the development of more stomach acids. These include fatty foods, spicy foods, and acidic fruits and juices.
Children and adults that have frequent heartburn—two times a week or more—and suffer from other related symptoms may be diagnosed with GERD.
What Is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is an official disease diagnosed by a doctor. It’s similar to GER, in that the main symptom is heartburn or acid reflux. However, it’s a more serious condition that requires treatment to avoid additional health complications. In other words, GER is simply the experience of acid reflux, whereas GERD is a disease that includes acid reflux as a symptom.
Those who are diagnosed with GERD typically experience:
- frequent heartburn (more than two times a week)
- chest pain
- regurgitation of partially digested food into the back of the throat
- trouble swallowing
- breathing difficulties similar to asthma
- sore throat
- a sour taste in the back of the mouth
Over-the-counter medications may help some. However, those with GERD may find that they're taking the medications too often or that they aren't effective.
Though the exact causes of GERD aren't always clear, they most always involve factors that weaken or overwhelm the LES. The LES is usually injured or somehow compromised in people with GERD, so that certain "triggers"—like eating a big meal or consuming acidic beverages—overpower the LES's ability to keep stomach acids where they belong. As a result, the valve gives way, allowing acids to flow back into the esophagus.
Though most anyone can experience GER after consuming a large meal or when lying down too quickly after eating, risk factors for GERD are typically more specific. They may include:
- injury and trauma to the esophagus
- hiatal hernia
- connective tissue disorders that weaken the LES
- Zollinger-Ellison syndrome
In addition, new studies have indicated that our current obesity epidemic is leading to an increase in cases of diagnosed GERD. Researchers who followed over 30,000 people in Norway for 11 years found a 47 percent increase in those who reported weekly acid reflux symptoms. They theorized that the increasing numbers may be linked to the rise in overweight and obese individuals.
A study in 2006 also linked GERD with obesity. Researchers who reviewed the results of 20 other studies found that excess body weight increases the risk for having heartburn and acid reflux.
When GER Becomes GERD
Are you at risk for GERD if you suffer the occasional bout of heartburn? It depends on other risk factors. If you smoke, become pregnant, or gain weight and you're experiencing more frequent heartburn, you may be at risk for developing GERD.
It’s important to note any changes that occur in your digestive habits. Are you starting to experience heartburn when you didn't before? Do you find that you're more sensitive to certain foods than you used to be? It may be a natural effect of aging, but if symptoms persist, it's important to make an appointment with your doctor to avoid other, potentially dangerous health conditions.
Complications of GERD
Stomach acid can gradually damage the cells and tissues in your esophagus, leading to the formation of scar tissue. This can make swallowing more difficult. Such damage can also lead to open sores in the esophagus (esophageal ulcers). It can even cause cancerous changes in the lining of the lower esophagus in some cases.
Complications of GERD may also include lung inflammation and infection, throat inflammation, and the collection of fluid in the sinuses and middle ear.
Fortunately, lifestyle changes and medications can help manage the symptoms of GERD. Be sure to see your doctor right if your GER becomes more frequent or you have other symptoms, such as coughing and chest pain. The goal is to address the problem before any more damage occurs.