4 Complications of Acid Reflux Disease

If left untreated, heartburn can turn into more serious issues.

The esophagus, highlighted in orange.
The esophagus, highlighted in orange. SCIEPRO/Getty Images

If you experience heartburn (acid reflux) two or more times a week, take notice. This constant movement of acid-containing stomach contents traveling back up into the esophagus can irritate the lining. Choose to ignore this common sign of acid reflux disease (or GERD) and complications can set in.

Acid Reflux Complication #1: 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.

This acid reflux complication doesn't have any defined symptoms of its own, just the usual GERD symptoms.

People with Barrett's have a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer compared to those who don't, but it is small. Less than 1% of Barrett's esophagus patients develop this cancer. Nevertheless, it is still important for individuals diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus to have regular screenings — usually an upper endoscopic exam and biopsy — for precancerous and cancerous cells.

When it comes to treating Barrett's esophagus, taking the usual steps to diminish GERD symptoms: lifestyle, diet, and medications, will help ease the discomfort. As for reversing the disease, there are currently no medications to do that.

Acid Reflux Complication #2: Esophageal Cancer

One of the risk factors for developing esophageal cancer is GERD. A esophageal cancer tumor begins growing in the esophagus lining.

If it grows enough to break through the esophageal wall, it can spread to other parts of the body using the lymphatic system as its transport.

Difficult and/or painful swallowing, hoarseness, and unexplained weight loss are symptoms of esophageal cancer. If you are experiencing any of these, in conjunction to your acid reflux, talk to your gastroenterologist as there are various treatment options for esophageal cancer.

Acid Reflux #3: Erosive Esophagitis

There's a name for an inflamed and swollen esophagus: esophagitis. And acid reflux is the most likely cause, though an infection can also be the culprit. 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 esophagitis is an acid reflux complication. Antibiotics may be prescribed if the cause of the esophagitis is an infection.

Acid Reflux Complication #4: Esophageal Strictures

A complication of prolonged acid reflux can be an esophageal stricture, or 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.

"Is it just a little HEARTBURN or something more serious?" The American College of Gastroenterology, n.d. Web. 9 Feb 2011.

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

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