Complications of Long-Term GERD

Don't leave your heartburn untreated. Here's why.

woman with heart burn
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Leave gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD - also referred to as acid reflux disease) untreated for a long time and the result isn't just discomfort. When not treated effectively, the constant acid reflux can irritate the lining of the esophagus, and serious complications can occur.

Barrett's esophagus, esophageal cancer, laryngeal cancer, erosive esophagitis, and esophageal strictures, all make the list of conditions that can be born out of long-term GERD.

Read on to find out more about each of these conditions.

Barrett's Esophagus: When the tissue in the esophagus — the muscular tube that carries food and saliva from the mouth to the stomach — changes so it resembles a type of tissue similar to that normally found in the intestine, then you have Barrett's esophagus. Those with Barrett's esophagus are 30 to 125 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than those without this condition. And while that amount of risk sounds scary, the truth is that approximately 1% of people with Barrett's esophagus end up with esophageal cancer. Which leads us to...

Esophageal CancerWhen malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the esophagus, it's called esophageal cancer. Doctors cannot always explain why one person gets cancer and another does not. There is, however, a strong association between gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and esophageal cancer.

Laryngeal CancerSome researchers have reported that GERD is associated with the development of laryngeal cancer. However, the scientific community has not been able to establish a clear relationship between heartburn and cancer of the larynx. No cause and effect between the two has been shown yet.


Erosive EsophagitisWhen there is inflammation and swelling of the esophagus, then you have esophagitis. It is most often caused by acid-containing stomach contents refluxing back up into the esophagus.

Esophageal Strictures: Best characterize as a gradual narrowing of the esophagus, esophageal strictures can lead to swallowing difficulties. 

6 Ways to Prevent GERD Complications

There are several steps you can take that can drastically reduce your chances of developing one of these complications.

1. Make the necessary lifestyle changes
Heartburn symptoms can often be relieved if sufferers make a few lifestyle changes. Many people can significantly reduce the occurrence of symptoms by watching their diet, stopping smoking, and changing their sleep behavior. With less acid reflux episodes, there is less chance of esophageal damage. 

2. Watch what you eat
If you suffer from acid reflux, you need to know what foods are safe to eat and what foods to avoid. Most heartburn sufferers indicate their heartburn is worse after eating. If you can reduce the occurrences of food-related heartburn, this can go a long way in reducing the risk of complications. For example, drinking carbonated drinks may increase your risk of a heartburn flare up.

There are the foods with little risk of causing heartburn, foods that can be consumed in moderation, and foods that should be avoided completely. Also, knowing how to prepare foods will reduce heartburn. Check out this recipe index for heartburn-free recipes. Another resource to help you with your dietary needs as a heartburn sufferer is the Dining Out Guide For Heartburn Sufferers.

3. Keep track of your heartburn triggers
When you experience chronic heartburn, the first step to controlling your heartburn is to record what may trigger your attacks, the severity of the attacks, how your body reacts, and what gives you relief.

The next step is to take this information to your doctor so the both of you can determine what lifestyle changes you will need to make and what treatments will give you maximum relief, and prevent complications. You can use this heartburn record as an example of what to track.

4. Learn how to prevent heartburn before it happens
Here are a few tips to significantly reduce the occurrence of acid reflux symptoms, and in most cases prevent the acid reflux before it starts. With less acid reflux episodes, there is less chance of esophageal damage.

5. Reduce nighttime heartburn
Nighttime heartburn can be the most dangerous. If frequent nighttime heartburn occurs, the risk of complications increases. There are several reasons for this. For example, refluxed acid tends to remain in the esophagus for longer periods, allowing it to cause more damage to the esophagus. There are, however, a few ways to prevent nighttime heartburn.

6. Take prescribed medications
You should always contact your doctor if your heartburn occurs two or more times a week. While under the care of your physical, he or she may prescribe medications or suggest over-the-counter remedies. There are alternative homeopathic remedies for easing heartburn. Discuss these with your doctor also.


"Barrett's Esophagus." NIH Publication No. 05-4546 December 2004. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). 4 Nov 2006

"Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)." NIH Publication No. 07–0882 May 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). 4 Nov 2006

"The Word on GERD." American College of Gastroenterology. 4 Nov 2006

Zhang D, Zhou J, Chen B, Zhou L, Tao L. "Gastroesophageal reflux and carcinoma of larynx or pharynx: a meta-analysis." Acta Otolaryngol. 2014 Oct;134(10):982-9. doi: 10.3109/00016489.2014.927592. 

Busch EL, Zevallos JP, Olshan AF. "Gastroesophageal reflux disease and odds of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma in North Carolina." Laryngoscope. 2015 Oct 9. doi: 10.1002/lary.25716. [Epub ahead of print]