Occasional heartburn or acid reflux can happen to anyone. However, if you experience it two or more times a week most weeks, you could be at risk for complications that may affect the health of your throat. Learn about the complications of regular heartburn and how you can protect your throat from damage.
What Is Acid Reflux?
During normal digestion, food goes down the esophagus (the tube at the back of your throat) through a muscle or valve known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), and into the stomach. When you experience heartburn or acid reflux, the LES is relaxing or opening when it shouldn't and allowing acid from the stomach to rise back up into the esophagus.
Though most anyone may experience heartburn once in awhile, those who have more severe cases may be diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In these cases, it's important to treat the condition to reduce painful and uncomfortable symptoms and safeguard the esophagus and the throat.
How GERD May Damage the Esophagus
That burning sensation you feel with heartburn is stomach acid harming the lining of the esophagus. Over time, repeated exposure of stomach acid to the lining of the esophagus can cause a condition known as esophagitis.
Esophagitis is an inflammation of the esophagus that makes it prone to injuries like erosions, ulcers, and scar tissue. Symptoms of esophagitis may include pain, difficulty swallowing, and more acid regurgitation. A doctor can diagnose this condition with a combination of tests, including a biopsy or a barium x-ray.
Your doctor will likely begin treatment immediately if you've been diagnosed with esophagitis, as an inflamed esophagus can lead to more health complications.
Complications of Untreated GERD and Esophagitis
If GERD and esophagitis symptoms aren’t brought under control, your stomach acid may continue to further damage your esophagus. Over time, repeated damage might lead to the following complications:
- Narrowing of the esophagus: this is called "esophageal stricture" and may be caused by scar tissue resulting from GERD or tumors. You may experience difficulty swallowing or food getting caught in your throat.
- Esophageal rings: these are rings or folds of abnormal tissue that form in the lower lining of the esophagus. These bands of tissue may constrict the esophagus and cause trouble swallowing.
- Barrett's esophagus: This is a condition in which the cells in the lining of the esophagus are damaged from stomach acid and change to become similar to the cells lining the small intestine. This is a rare condition and you may feel no symptoms, but it can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.
All three of these complications can be avoided with proper treatment for frequent heartburn or GERD.
How Acid Reflux and GERD May Damage the Throat
In addition to potentially damaging the lower esophagus, frequent heartburn or GERD may also damage the upper throat. This can occur if the stomach acid comes all the way up into the back of the throat or nasal airway. This condition is often referred to as laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR).
LPR is also sometimes called "silent reflux," because it doesn't always present symptoms that people readily recognize. It's important for individuals with GERD to be checked for LPR, to avoid any unknown throat or voice damage. Symptoms of LPR may include the following:
- chronic throat clearing
- feeling of a "lump" in the throat
- chronic cough or cough that wakes you from your sleep
- choking episodes
- trouble breathing
- "rawness" in the throat
- postnasal drip
- voice problems (particularly in singers or voice professionals)
Preventing Future Damage
No matter if you have frequent heartburn, GERD, LPR, or a combination of these, it’s important to control your symptoms to avoid additional health problems. Talk to your doctor and try the following lifestyle modifications:
- Eat smaller meals more frequently and take your time chewing.
- Stay upright for at least one hour after meals.
- Avoid eating two to three hours before bedtime.
- Avoid trigger foods like high-fat and high-sugar items, alcohol, acidic foods (like citrus beverages and tomato products), caffeine, peppermint, and chocolate.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Stop smoking.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing.
- Drink plenty of water between meals.
- Use wedges and pillows to elevate your head during sleep.