Identifying that you have acid reflux can be tricky, as many of the symptoms are not obvious or can be easily mistaken for something else, like a heart attack or common cold. However, if left untreated, acid reflux can cause esophagitis, a painful irritation of the esophagus that can lead to bleeding, ulcers and scarring in the esophagus. Chronic acid reflux has also been linked to Barrett's esophagus, characterized by an abnormal change in the cells that line the esophagus, which is a precursor to cancer.
Acid reflux is the backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus - the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. This backward flow becomes possible when the sphincter muscle at the lower end of your esophagus is weak or relaxes at the wrong time. If the valve or sphincter is open, this allows stomach acid to back up into your esophagus. This reflux can, in turn, cause heartburn – the burning sensation in your chest - along with other symptoms. When acid reflux and heart burn occurs at least twice a week, and the backwash of acid irritates the lining of your esophagus, doctors will classify this as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
Here are some common symptoms of acid reflux that are easily mistaken for other things:
- Chest pain: occurs because stomach acid is splashing into the esophagus, people often mistake it for a heart attack
- Regurgitation: a sour or bitter-tasting acid backing up into your throat or mouth
- Pain after meals: if the stomach is overloaded with a big fatty meal, this can trigger acid production and reflux.
- Trouble swallowing: Over time, the continuous cycle of damage and healing after acid reflux can cause scarring. This, in turn, causes swelling in the esophageal tissue, and a narrowing of the esophagus, resulting in difficulty swallowing
- Choking: sometimes acid from the stomach makes its way up to the throat and can cause choking. If you wake up choking, this may be a sign of acid reflux
- Hoarseness: often mistaken for an early cold symptom – this can actually be the result of stomach acid seeping into esophagus and irritating the vocal cords
- Sore throat: usually mistaken for seasonal allergies or cold symptom, a sore throat develops from the continuous irritation of acid on throat. An easy way to know to know it’s not a cold, is if you don’t develop other flu or cold- like symptoms
- Cough: If you are experiencing a chronic cough and wheezing, this may not be a respiratory issue but rather stomach acid from reflux getting into your lungs
If you have acid reflux, simple lifestyle changes, like losing excess weight, eating smaller meals, and avoiding foods that seem to trigger heartburn can help.