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Complications of Acid Reflux Disease

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Updated March 07, 2011

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You may suffer from heartburn (acid reflux) two or more times a week, and think it's no big deal. But it can become a really big deal. If you are living with acid reflux disease (or GERD), and it goes untreated or is under-treated, the constant acid reflux can begin to irritate the lining of the esophagus. When this happens, complications can set in.

Acid Reflux Disease and Barrett's Esophagus

Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which the esophagus, the muscular tube that carries food and saliva from the mouth to the stomach, changes so that some of its lining is replaced by a type of tissue similar to that normally found in the intestine.

Barrett's esophagus doesn't have any defined symptoms of its own. What symptoms may occur are usually their GERD symptoms.

While there is a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer in people with Barrett's, less than 1% of patients with Barrett's esophagus will develop this cancer. Even though the risk is low, it is still important that individuals diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus have regular examinations to screen for precancerous and cancerous cells. Examinations can include an upper endoscopic exam and/or biopsy.

Currently, there are no medications that will reverse Barrett's esophagus. When it comes to treating Barrett's esophagus, treating the underlying GERD symptoms may slow the progress of the disease.

Have you been diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus? You can share your experiences with symptoms, what prompted you to go to your doctor, and how a diagnosis was made.

Acid Reflux Disease and Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is a tumor that begins to grow in the lining of the esophagus, and then can grow through the wall of the esophagus. If the tumor grows through the esophageal wall, it can then spread to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system. One of the risk factors for developing esophageal cancer is GERD.

It is important to know the symptoms of esophageal cancer, which include difficult and/or painful swallowing, hoarseness, and unexplained weight loss.

There are various treatment options available, and the doctor and patient should discuss which treatment for esophageal cancer is the most appropriate.

Acid Reflux Disease and Erosive Esophagitis

Esophagitis is an inflammation and swelling of the esophagus, and is most often caused by acid-containing stomach contents refluxing back up into the esophagus. Symptoms of esophagitis include pain when swallowing and a burning sensation in the esophagus.

Treating esophagitis depends on the cause. Medications such as proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers may be prescribed if the cause of the esophagitis is acid reflux due to GERD. Antibiotics may be prescribed if the cause of the esophagitis is an infection.

Acid Reflux Disease and Esophageal Strictures

An esophageal stricture is a gradual narrowing of the esophagus, which can lead to swallowing difficulties. One of the causes of esophageal strictures can be scar tissue that builds up in the esophagus. When the lining of the esophagus is damaged -- for example, when acid reflux occurs over an extended period of time -- scarring can develop. Other causes of strictures can include swallowing corrosive substances and infections.

Sources:

Carol Ann Rinzler; Ken DeVault, MD, First. Heartburn & Reflux For Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc, 2004. pp 38-40; 136-138, 295, 298, 318-319.

"INFORMATION YOU CAN STOMACH - What are some severe complications and atypical manifestations of GERD?" The American College of Gastroenterology, n.d. Web. 9 Feb 2011. http://www.acg.gi.org/patients/gerd/info13.asp

"Is it just a little HEARTBURN or something more serious?" The American College of Gastroenterology, n.d. Web. 9 Feb 2011. http://www.acg.gi.org/patients/pdfs/UnderstandGERD.pdf

Steven R. Peikin, M.D., Gastrointestinal Health. First Edition. Harper Perennial (Harper Collins Publishers), 1999. 48; 50-51.

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