Acid reflux happens when your stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. Your esophagus is the muscular tube that connects your throat and stomach. The most common symptom of acid reflux is a burning sensation in your chest, known as heartburn. Other symptoms may include a sour or regurgitated food taste in the back of your mouth.
Acid reflux is also known as gastroesophageal reflux (GER). If you experience it more than twice a week, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In addition to frequent heartburn, symptoms of GERD include difficulty swallowing, coughing or wheezing, and chest pain.
Most people experience acid reflux and heartburn from time to time. GERD is a more serious condition that affects about 20 percent of Americans. Research in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences suggests that rates of GERD are rising.
Learn about steps you can take to prevent acid reflux and heartburn. Lifestyle changes, medication, or surgery may help you find relief.
Risk Factors for Acid Reflux and Heartburn
Anyone can experience occasional acid reflux and heartburn. For example, you may experience these symptoms after eating too quickly. You may notice them after consuming lots of spicy food or high-fat treats.
You’re more likely to develop GERD if you:
- are overweight or obese
- are pregnant
- have diabetes
Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa, may also contribute to some cases of GERD. "People who induce vomiting, or have in the past, can have an increased risk of heartburn," says Jacqueline L. Wolf, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Occasional or mild cases of acid reflux can usually be prevented by adopting a few lifestyle changes. For example:
- Avoid lying down for three hours after a meal.
- Eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing to avoid pressure on your abdomen.
- Lose excess weight.
- Quit smoking.
- Raise the head of your bed six to eight inches by placing wooden blocks under your bedposts. Bed risers are another option for doing this.
Several types of food can cause acid reflux and heartburn. Pay close attention to how you feel after eating different foods. Your triggers may include:
- fatty or fried foods
- carbonated beverages, such as soda
- citrus fruits
- tomato sauce
If you experience acid reflux or heartburn after eating certain foods, take steps to avoid them.
Many people can resolve their symptoms through lifestyle changes. Other people may require medications to prevent or treat acid reflux and heartburn. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications, such as:
- antacids, such as calcium carbonate (Tums)
- H2-receptor blockers, such as famotidine (Pepcid AC) or cimetidine (Tagamet HB)
- mucosal protectants, such as sucralfate (Carafate)
- proton pump inhibitors, such as rabeprazole (Aciphex), dexlansoprazole (Dexilant), and esomeprazole (Nexium)
A Note About Proton Pump Inhibitors
Proton pump inhibitors are the most effective treatments for chronic acid reflux. They’re generally considered very safe. They reduce your body’s production of gastric acids. Unlike some other medications, you only need to take them once a day to prevent symptoms.
There are also downsides to using proton pump inhibitors on a long-term basis. Over time, they can deplete vitamin B-12 in your body. Since stomach acid is one of your body's defenses against infection, proton pump inhibitors can also raise your risk of infection and bone fractures. In particular, they can raise your risk of hip, spine, and wrist fractures. They can also be expensive, often costing more than $100 each month.
Surgery is only necessary in rare cases of acid reflux and heartburn. The most common surgery used to treat acid reflux is a procedure known as Nissen fundoplication. In this procedure, a surgeon lifts a portion of your stomach and tightens it around the junction where your stomach and esophagus meet. This helps increase pressure in your lower esophageal sphincter (LES).
This procedure is performed with a laparoscope. You will need to stay in the hospital for one to three days after it’s performed. Complications are rare and the results are extremely effective. However, surgery may lead to increased bloating and flatulence or trouble swallowing.
If you experience regular acid reflux or heartburn, speak to your doctor. They may recommend lifestyle changes to help prevent your symptoms. For example, they may advise you to eat smaller meals, remain upright after eating, or cut certain foods from your diet. They may also encourage you to lose weight or quit smoking.
If lifestyle changes don’t relieve your symptoms, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications. In rare cases, you may need surgery. Complications from the surgery are rare.