Acid reflux: Is it life threatening?

Although acid reflux is not life threatening, chronic acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can cause serious health complications over time.

Occasional acid reflux is fairly common, but GERD causes persistent acid reflux, heartburn, and nausea. It may also inflame the esophagus, causing esophagitis.

This article lists some of the symptoms and possible complications of acid reflux and GERD. We also provide tips on helping to prevent and treat these conditions and information on when to contact a doctor about symptoms.

Acid itself is not life threatening. But chronic acid reflux can cause serious and potentially life threatening health complications. The medical term for frequent or chronic acid reflux is GERD.

There are no reported cases of a person choking to death in their sleep due to acid reflux or GERD. But GERD can cause stomach acid to enter the lungs, which can cause a burning cough.

Without treatment, GERD can cause several serious health complications, including:

The most serious threat of GERD is esophageal cancer, which has a combined 5-year survival rate of 20% across all stages.

But most people who have GERD do not develop esophageal cancer, and can successfully manage the condition with medications and lifestyle changes.

Occasional acid reflux typically does not cause health complications. The best way to help prevent complications is to avoid foods or activities that can trigger acid reflux.

Some tips to avoid occasional acid reflux include:

  • avoiding fatty or spicy foods
  • avoiding any foods that trigger symptoms
  • eating smaller, more frequent meals instead of large meals
  • avoiding eating before bed
  • staying upright for about 45 minutes after a meal
  • sleeping with the head of the bed elevated by 6–8 inches
  • avoiding wearing clothing that fits tightly around the abdomen
  • reaching or maintaining a moderate weight
  • quitting smoking and staying away from second-hand smoke
  • taking medications according to a doctor’s instructions

To reduce the chance of complications from GERD, the best option is to seek medical treatment. People may also benefit from keeping a food journal. This will help them to identify and avoid foods that trigger or worsen their symptoms.

A doctor may recommend that a person makes certain lifestyle changes or takes medications to help manage acid reflux or GERD. Some potential treatment options include:

  • lifestyle changes such as those mentioned above
  • over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications, such as:
    • Antacids: These are medications that help alleviate heartburn.
    • H2 blockers: These are medications that reduce the production of stomach acid.
    • Proton pump inhibitors: These are medications that reduce the production of stomach acid and help heal the lining of the esophagus.
  • surgical procedures for severe GERD, which may include:
    • Weight loss surgery or bariatric surgery: A procedure that can help promote weight loss in people who are overweight or obese. It may help to alleviate GERD symptoms.
    • Fundoplication: A procedure that involves sewing around the top of the stomach to help prevent stomach acid from entering the esophagus.
    • Endoscopy: A procedure that involves using an endoscope to diagnose and help treat gastrointestinal symptoms. An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube with a light and camera attached. A surgeon can guide the tube through the mouth and into the esophagus and stomach. They can then pass surgical instruments through the endoscope to carry out a tissue biopsy or operation.

The primary symptom of acid reflux is heartburn, which typically feels like a burning pain in the center of the chest. But not all people who have acid reflux experience heartburn. Other possible symptoms include:

Occasional bouts of acid reflux are rarely a cause for concern. But frequent bouts may signal an underlying problem that requires treatment. A person should talk with their doctor if they experience one or more of the following:

  • acid reflux symptoms that occur most days for 3 weeks or more
  • acid reflux that does not respond to appropriate lifestyle changes or OTC medications
  • additional symptoms, such as:

If a person suspects that their chest pain may be due to a heart attack, they should seek emergency medical attention.

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid leaks out of the stomach and into the esophagus. The medical term for frequent acid reflux is GERD.

Occasional acid reflux is rarely a cause for concern. But GERD may indicate an underlying medical condition. A person who experiences frequent acid reflux should contact their doctor for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Without treatment, GERD can cause serious complications such as asthma and structural changes to the esophagus.

Treatment for GERD may include lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, eating smaller meals, and identifying and avoiding trigger foods. A doctor may also recommend prescription medications to help reduce the production of stomach acid and heal the lining of the esophagus.

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