3 Acid Reflux Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore

Uncontrolled reflux could lead to more serious health conditions, such as Barrett’s esophagus or cancer.

Medically reviewed in August 2020

Acid reflux is the backward flow of stomach acid through the esophagus—the organ that joins the throat and stomach. The most common symptom of the condition is a burning sensation in your chest, otherwise known as heartburn. Some people may also regurgitate sour liquid. More extreme symptoms, like frequent heartburn, trouble swallowing, bad breath, nausea and chronic coughing may be the signs of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

If you’re experiencing heartburn—the main symptom of acid reflux—more than twice per week, you may have GERD, or heartburn that needs medical attention. It’s important to seek treatment so that you can get your symptoms under control. Even if you’ve had acid reflux symptoms for years, it’s time to talk to your healthcare provider.

Uncontrolled reflux can lead to Barrett’s esophagus, which is a pre-cancerous condition. Barrett’s esophagus occurs when the lining of the esophagus is replaced by tissue that’s similar to the inside of the intestine. If left untreated, it can cause problems with swallowing or progress to cancer of the esophagus, or esophageal adenocarcinoma.

The most important thing to remember about acid reflux is to see your doctor if symptoms occur regularly, or if they're severe. In many cases, lifestyle changes, such as exercise and weight management, can help ease these uncomfortable issues.

Learn to recognize these three acid reflux symptoms and get some relief:

Chest pain
Chest pain is sometimes associated with acid reflux; it happens when acid creeps higher and stays in your esophagus. But assuming recurrent chest pain is acid reflux could be dangerous. Chest pain could actually be a heart attack.

Typically, chest pain from a heart attack feels like tightening, rather than burning. Pain can also spread to your jaw, arm or shoulders, and could bring nausea, dizziness, sweating or a racing heartbeat. Symptoms of a heart attack could also be not typical and confusing. If you suspect that your symptoms may be heart-related or if you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

Chronic coughing and hoarseness
If you have reflux, acid can also edge its way up to your vocal cords, which can cause you to cough or develop a hoarse voice.

Voice problems caused by acid reflux could mean you have GERD, but the acid in your lungs and throat may also trigger asthma or repeated cases of pneumonia. If you develop one of these conditions, your doctor will develop a treatment plan that’s right for you, which may include some lifestyle and dietary changes as well as medication.

Easing acid reflux
Acid reflux is manageable once the factors that are contributing to the condition are identified. Here are five ways you can address common sources of reflux and start feeling better:

  • Exercise regularly: Extra pounds increase your risk for acid reflux. Getting regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight. Low-impact workouts, such as yoga, walking and swimming, are less likely to aggravate your digestive tract and are great options for those with acid reflux. Be sure to wait about two or three hours after eating before working out.
  • Avoid some dietary pitfalls. Avoid reflux triggers, including fatty foods, alcohol, chocolate, coffee and spicy meals. Avoid eating too close to bedtime. Be mindful of the time and stop snacking two to three hours before you go to sleep.
  • Elevate the head of your bed. By keeping your head above your stomach, you can reduce the amount of acid that reaches the lower esophagus. Methods include lifting the bedframe itself or inserting a foam wedge under your mattress to raise your head 6 to 10 inches. Merely stacking pillows won’t provide the support you need.
  • Tweak your habits. If you smoke, quit. If you drink, decrease your intake. Both nicotine and alcohol can relax the lower esophageal sphincter, the muscular ring that prevents acid from flowing backwards from the stomach up into the esophagus. 
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about over-the-counter remedies. Your doctor may recommend that you take medication, such as an H2 blocker (famotidine, cimetidine or nizatidine) or a proton pump inhibitor (esomeprazole, omeprazole or lansoprazole) to help manage your condition. Antacids can also help relieve reflux symptoms, but you should only use them as directed by your healthcare provider and under medical supervision. If your symptoms do not improve with medication or if you need to take them for more than a couple of weeks, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider (HCP).

The bottom line: Acid reflux is often completely benign, but it’s important to see your HCP if your symptoms are persistent or severe. Over time, untreated GERD can lead to more serious health issues.


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