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Signs You Have Acid Reflux, According to Physicians

Reflux can end up dangerous.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Acid reflux can be a nuisance, making mealtimes uncomfortable and cutting into your sleep. But it can also be dangerous. Heartburn is only one of the symptoms of acid reflux, and it's important to know the other ways the condition can show up. These are the signs of acid reflux, according to physicians, and what you can do to treat and prevent it. (The answer isn't just reaching for over-the-counter heartburn medications.) Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

What Is Acid Reflux?

Woman Suffering From Acid Reflux Or Heartburn
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Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid—which is naturally produced in the stomach to aid with digestion—backs up into the esophagus (the tube between the throat and stomach). This can cause a number of symptoms that are uncomfortable and can even lead to cancer.

2

The Most Unrecognized Cause of Reflux

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Arundathi Rao, MD, a Florida-based bariatric surgery specialist, founded a reflux clinic because she was seeing so many cases of the condition. "Besides genetics—for example, if you were born with a hiatal hernia—the biggest underestimated factor for reflux is anything that increases the pressure in your abdomen," says Rao. A range of factors can cause that, including obesity, pregnancy, frequent lifting of heavy objects, smoking, COPD or chronic coughing, or having had "tummy tuck" surgery. But even if that doesn't apply to you, certain lifestyle habits commonly produce symptoms of acid reflux.

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3

Signs You Have Acid Reflux

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Rao sees a range of symptoms of acid reflux, with the most common including:

  • Heartburn
  • Chronic cough
  • Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
  • Voice changes (because of stomach acid's effects on vocal cords)
  • Chronic sinusitis and ear infections
  • Increase in postnasal drip
  • Frequent pneumonia

Most seriously, acid reflux increases your risk of esophageal cancer, which is rising in frequency. 

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4

When to See a Doctor

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If you're experiencing acid reflux regularly, Rao recommends seeing a doctor before you start relying on over-the-counter heartburn medications. "It's important to get a workup done before you make a proton pump inhibitor or H2 blocker a regular part of your routine," says Rao. "Then, if it turns out to be a mild case of reflux, or you're just not ready for more serious management of that reflux, medications may be completely appropriate."

An important reason: Acid reflux medications will reduce the production of stomach acid, but they won't stop reflux, says Rao. If you have a physical issue that's causing the reflux—such as a hiatal hernia—the best course may be to have that issue surgically repaired. Several options, including minimally invasive procedures, are available.

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5

To Prevent Acid Reflux

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You can make certain lifestyle changes to manage acid reflux, says Rao, including:

  • Don't eat or drink too soon before going to bed 
  • Cut back on caffeine and alcohol, both of which can stimulate stomach acid production
  • Cut back on foods that may worsen acid reflux, such as chocolate
  • Maintain a healthy weight, or lose weight if you need to 
  • Eat a healthy diet, emphasizing whole foods, fruits and vegetables, and minimizing processed foods. "The less processed your food—fewer chemicals, fewer preservatives—the better," says Rao. "Those things contribute to making reflux worse. It's not helpful for our anatomy to be exposed to those types of chemicals."
  • Practice portion control and avoid overeating. "Making sure that we're mindfully eating and not overeating is a biggie for a lot of people, especially right now, with all the stress everybody's dealing with," says Rao.

And to ensure your health don't miss these 101 Health Habits You Didn't Know Were Deadly.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more about Michael
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