Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – often referred to simply as reflux – is a digestive condition in which the contents of the stomach back up into the esophagus, causing heartburn, regurgitation and other symptoms.

Signs & Symptoms of Reflux

When the liquid contents of the stomach seep into the esophagus, inflammation and damage of the lining can occur thanks to the presence of acid and a digestive enzyme known as pepsin Bile may also be present. This typically occurs when the sphincter valve fails to close properly after a meal.

The most noticeable sign of reflux is heartburn. This painful, burning sensation – also referred to as acid indigestion – can be felt from the stomach to the abdomen and chest, and can last as long as two hours after eating. Heartburn is often accompanied by regurgitation (a sour taste in your mouth) and dyspepsia (stomach pain and discomfort). Additional symptoms include belching, stomach bloating, coughing, wheezing, hoarseness and nausea. Symptoms are most prevalent after eating, and when lying down or bending over.

Reflux is a chronic condition that is caused most often by hiatal hernia, a stomach disorder in which the sphincter valve and upper section of the stomach shifts above the diaphragm, causing stomach acids to reflux (back up) into the esophagus. Other conditions that aggravate or lead to reflux include pregnancy and diseases that weaken the esophageal muscles, such as scleroderma.

Lifestyle factors that increase the risk of reflux include diet (fatty and spicy foods, citrus, tomato, chocolate, mint, garlic and onions can all trigger heartburn, as can beverages containing alcohol, caffeine and carbonation); lying down after eating; smoking and obesity.

Treatment for Reflux

If you experience frequent reflux, the best way to avoid painful attacks is to keep away from those triggers that are responsible for your symptoms. This may involve eliminating certain foods and beverages from your diet, and breaking large meals down into small, more frequent ones. Making changes to your lifestyle (exercise more, quit smoking) can also help.

Otherwise, reflux is most often treated with over-the-counter antacids that neutralize stomach acids to prevent painful symptoms from flaring up. More serious cases that don’t respond well to medical treatment may require surgery.