Heartburn — that burning pain in your chest after eating certain foods or when you lie down in the evening — is a common complaint and usually no cause for alarm. Heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, which is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach.
Most people can manage the discomfort of heartburn on their own with lifestyle changes, including maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding smoking, alcohol and foods that trigger your symptoms; and nonprescription medications, such as antacids.
When heartburn occurs repeatedly over time and interferes with your routine, it's considered gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Approximately 20% of the people in the U.S. have GERD, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
The constant backwash of acid with GERD can irritate the lining of your esophagus, often causing it to become inflamed. Over time, chronic inflammation in your esophagus can cause serious damage, including narrowing of the esophagus, called esophageal stricture, or the precancerous changes of Barrett's esophagus.
In addition to heartburn, symptoms of GERD can include:
With GERD, your health care professional is likely to recommend that you first try lifestyle changes and nonprescription medications — similar to the treatment recommendations for heartburn. And with both conditions, if these measures aren't effective, there are prescription medications that may be recommended.
If medications don't help with GERD, or you wish to avoid long-term medication use, your health care team may recommend: