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Categories > Digestive Disorders > Heartburn

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Guarding against GERD

» How to fight back

A cancer connection

Long-term reflux can result in Barrett’s esophagus, a chronic inflammation of the throat lining. Five percent of Barrett’s cases develop into cancer of the esophagus. Doctors diagnose Barrett’s by exploring the throat with an endoscope, a miniature camera device that can also take tissue samples. Patients may also need to ingest barium to provide an X-ray outline of the throat and undergo other tests to see if the sphincter closes tightly.

Treatment for Barrett’s patients includes drugs like H2 blockers, which slow acid production; proton pump inhibitors, which stop acid production; prokinetics to tone and strengthen the sphincter; or mucosal protectors that coat irritated throat linings. In severe cases, surgery is performed to wrap excess stomach tissue around the esophagus or lasers are used to burn away the Barrett’s cells.

Nearly half the adult population gets occasional heartburn. Most of us find relief by taking a pink liquid or tablet from the medicine cabinet…and swearing off garlic. But for more than 15 million Americans, heartburn is a daily ailment, marked by difficulty swallowing, stomach pain, sore throat, hoarseness, weight loss and abdominal distress.

Left untreated, this condition, termed gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can scald tender throat linings with stomach acid that backs up (refluxes) into the throat. Most GERD patients have a weak sphincter—the flap at the bottom of the throat—that doesn’t seal tightly enough to contain stomach acid. In some cases, GERD can lead to more serious disorders.

How to fight back

Thankfully, GERD can be managed quite well. In fact, many patients enjoy long-lasting relief from its misery. If you suffer from its symptoms, don’t put off a visit to your doctor. A routine exam and a course of antacids often is all it takes. You can take some preventive measures, too, if your GERD is mild enough to treat on your own, such as:

  • Avoid foods that cause reflux: coffee, chocolate, fatty or spicy foods, soda, mints, citrus products, onions, tomatoes, herbs and whole milk.
  • Eat smaller meals at more frequent times. Eat dinner at least three hours before bedtime. Do not lie down immediately after eating.
  • Sleep with your head at least six inches higher than your feet to keep acid from refluxing. Use blocks to raise the bed frame or a foam wedge under your pillow.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Lose both the extra weight and the tight clothes that put pressure on the abdomen.
  • Stop smoking. If you smoke, GERD is another reason to quit: Tobacco weakens the sphincter.


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