Although acid reflux is not a life threatening condition, frequent acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can lead to more serious health issues and complications if left untreated.

Many people experience mild acid reflux from time to time. If your reflux is minor, the risk of complications is generally low.

But if you have frequent acid reflux, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

GERD itself isn’t a life threatening condition, but without treatment, it can cause more serious health issues.

Read on to find out about the more serious complications of GERD and how to prevent them.

Mild or occasional acid reflux isn’t usually cause for concern. While it may cause temporary discomfort, it poses no major health risks.

However, frequent acid reflux may be due to GERD, which causes additional symptoms and potentially serious complications. Common symptoms of GERD can include:

Read more about what the symptoms of GERD feel like.

When is acid reflux an emergency?

While an episode of acid reflux doesn’t typically result in a medical emergency, some emergency health conditions may cause similar symptoms.

If you’re experiencing concerning symptoms that may indicate a heart attack, severe allergic reaction, or obstruction, seek emergency medical care. Symptoms may include:

  • difficulty breathing or feeling your throat tighten up
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pressure or squeezing
  • chest pain that radiates to your shoulder, back, or arm
  • loss of consciousness
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If not managed or treated, GERD may lead to complications. Some of them can be serious, especially if they’re left untreated. Having a GERD complication may increase your risk for others.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the more serious health issues that can arise due to GERD.


Frequent acid reflux can trigger inflammation in the esophagus, a condition known as esophagitis.

Esophagitis makes swallowing difficult and sometimes painful. Other symptoms can include:

  • sore throat
  • hoarse voice
  • heartburn

Chronic, untreated esophagitis may also increase your risk of:

Esophageal ulcers

Stomach acid can damage the lining of the esophagus, causing a painful ulcer, or open sore. This type of peptic ulcer is known as an esophageal ulcer.

Symptoms may include:

  • a burning sensation in your chest area
  • indigestion
  • pain when swallowing
  • nausea
  • heartburn
  • black or tarry stools

However, not everyone who has an esophageal ulcer has symptoms.

If left untreated, an esophageal ulcer can lead to more serious complications, such as an esophageal perforation (a hole in the esophagus) or a bleeding ulcer.

Esophageal stricture

Over time, inflammation from GERD in the esophagus can cause scarring or abnormal tissue growth (neoplasia). This tissue growth, known as esophageal stricture, can make the esophagus narrower and tighter.

Depending on the location of the stricture, swallowing may be difficult or painful. Your breathing may feel constricted.

Solid or dense foods can also get lodged in the esophagus, increasing your risk of choking.

A stricture can also make it harder for food and liquids to pass from the esophagus to the stomach, which can lead to blockages.

Not being able to swallow foods and liquids easily over time may cause malnutrition and dehydration.

Aspiration pneumonia

You can inhale stomach acid that rises to your throat or mouth into your lungs. This can lead to aspiration pneumonia, a lung infection that causes symptoms like:

  • fever
  • deep cough
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • fatigue
  • blue discoloration of the skin

Aspiration pneumonia can become serious and even fatal if left untreated.

Treatment usually involves antibiotics and, in more severe cases, hospitalization and supportive care for breathing.

Barrett’s esophagus

Ongoing damage to the esophagus caused by stomach acid can trigger cellular changes to the lining of the esophagus.

With Barrett’s esophagus, the squamous cells that line the lower esophagus are replaced by gland cells. These cells are similar to the ones that line your intestines.

Barrett’s esophagus develops in 10 to 15% of people with GERD. Other factors that may increase the risk include obesity and smoking cigarettes.

There’s also a slight risk that these gland cells can become cancerous and cause esophageal cancer.

Esophageal cancer

People with GERD have an increased risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, a type of esophageal cancer.

This cancer affects the lower part of the esophagus, causing symptoms like:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • weight loss
  • chest pain
  • coughing
  • severe indigestion
  • severe heartburn

Esophageal cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms in its early stages. People usually only notice symptoms once the cancer has reached a more advanced stage.

Besides GERD, other factors that may increase your risk for esophageal cancer include:

  • being male
  • being older than 55
  • using tobacco products
  • drinking alcohol regularly
  • having overweight or obesity

Read more about conditions that are related to GERD.

You may be able to reduce acid reflux and prevent complications by adopting the following habits:

  • Avoiding certain foods: Greasy, fatty, acidic, and spicy foods are more likely to cause reflux. Other foods, such as peppermint, tomato sauce, garlic, onions, citrus, and dark chocolate, are also known to trigger reflux.
  • Changing your eating habits: Some practices, like avoiding meals 2 to 3 hours before you go to bed or lie down, can help prevent acid reflux. This will give your stomach time to digest the food you’ve eaten. Also, eating smaller portions and chewing slowly may help prevent excess reflux.
  • Losing weight, if you have overweight or obesity: Carrying excess weight around your middle can push your stomach upward, making it easier for acid to rise into your esophagus.
  • Limiting alcohol and caffeine: Both alcohol and caffeine can increase acid reflux.
  • Quitting smoking, if you smoke: Smoking makes it more difficult for the sphincter that separates your esophagus from your stomach to close properly after food enters your stomach.
  • Sleeping inclined: If you have acid reflux and heartburn at night, you can look into special wedge pillows for people with GERD to raise your head on an incline as you sleep.
  • Wearing looser clothing: Tight-fitting pants can put additional pressure on your abdomen, forcing the contents of your stomach upward.

You should see a doctor if you experience GERD symptoms more than a couple of times a week, even if your symptoms are mild. They can prescribe medication that may reduce your symptoms and risk of complications.

You should also see your doctor if you regularly take over-the-counter antacids or heartburn medication. These drugs can help neutralize stomach acid but won’t heal inflammation in the esophagus.

Also, overuse of these medications may cause side effects. They’re intended to be taken for some time and then stopped.

Read more about when GERD requires medical treatment.

Occasional acid reflux isn’t usually associated with severe or long-term complications.

However, when acid reflux occurs frequently and is left untreated, it can lead to other serious health conditions, such as esophagitis. People who have frequent episodes of acid reflux may also have an increased risk of esophageal cancer.

Treatment for acid reflux can help decrease the likelihood of developing severe or life threatening complications.