You probably know the feeling of heartburn all too well—especially after enduring the wrath of a night of heavy drinking or inhaling half a pizza at 3 A.M. Once you get that familiar burning in your chest, you go through the same old drill: Just take some Tums and then the symptoms are gone right?
While heartburn is a common symptom, one that affects more than 10 million adults in the U.S. on a daily basis, frequent acid reflux is not as normal as you think.
“I think heartburn is so common that people assume that it’s a normal part of life. The truth is, it’s not,” says Roshini Raj, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health and co-founder of healthy living brand Tula. “You shouldn’t be experiencing heartburn frequently and it could be a sign of something more serious going on in your body.”
Complications of Untreated Acid Reflux
Acid reflux occurs when the stomach acid that’s naturally in your stomach backs up into the esophagus. Stomach acid is very corrosive and very acidic— it helps up digest and break down food and fight off infections, says Dr. Raj. The stomach is built to tolerate the strength of the stomach acid, but your esophagus isn’t. “[Stomach acid] can be very damaging to the delicate lining of your esophagus,” says Dr. Raj.
People who have frequent heartburn or other acid reflux symptoms (at least two to three times a week) may have what’s called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This frequent acid reflux can cause other bothersome symptoms too, like nausea, bad breath, and trouble swallowing. Learn more about the difference between heartburn and GERD.
The consequences of untreated acid reflux don’t stop there. “In some cases, acid reflux can go onto more serious conditions,” says Dr. Raj. Some of these conditions include:
Esophagitis, or inflammation of the esophagus, is one of the common complications of acid reflux. “If you have chronic inflammation due to acid reflux, sometimes that inflammation gets so severe that it actually causes a narrowing of your esophagus. You may have either pain or difficulty swallowing,” says Dr. Raj.
Barrett’s esophagus, another potential complication of acid reflux, is a condition where the exposure to acid changes the cells in the lining of your esophagus to a precancerous type of cell, says Dr. Raj. Over time, this can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Erosion of tooth enamel. Acid coming up from your stomach can permanently erode your tooth enamel. Frequent acid reflux may also give you chronic bad breath. (Try these dentist-approved bad breath remedies.)
Irritated airways. Small amounts of acid can come up and may fall into the trachea or windpipe and irritate your airways. This may cause respiratory symptoms or worsening of existing respiratory symptoms like asthma.
Red or black stool. If your acid reflux is eroding your esophagus or causing little tears, it can make it bleed, which then travels down into your digestive system. “You may see that blood in the stool in the form of red blood or very dark, black stools,” says Dr. Raj. Here are more things your poop color can reveal about your health.
Getting the proper treatment for acid reflux lowers your risk of getting these complications. “You don’t want to just accept acid reflux as part of your life, you want to make sure that you’re getting the correct diagnosis, evaluation, and the correct treatment,” says Dr. Raj.
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