How Common Is Reflux and GERD When You Have COPD?

A woman suffering from heartburn.
A woman suffering from heartburn.. Patrick Heagney/Getty Images

Question: How common is GERD in COPD?

Answer: Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) is actually quite a common condition, affecting approximately 20% of the population. Often referred to as acid reflux, GERD occurs when the contents of your stomach move in the wrong direction: up the esophagus instead of down toward the small intestine.

Medical research has found that more than one-quarter of those with COPD also suffers from GERD, making it more common in people with COPD than it is in people who don't have COPD.

Women who had been diagnosed with COPD were more likely to have GERD than men. In addition, being older increases the risk.

What Are the Risk Factors For GERD?

Smoking, the number one risk factor for COPD, is also a common risk factor for GERD. Other important risk factors include:

  • obesity
  • pregnancy
  • drinking alcohol
  • eating certain foods (fried, fatty, spicy, acidic, citrus, or chocolate-based food)
  • having certain medical conditions (a hiatal hernia, asthma, peptic ulcer, gastroparesis)

Although more research is needed to determine why people with COPD have a higher risk of GERD, studies suggest that the severity of hyperinflation in the lungs and dyspnea (labored breathing) play a role.

GERD Also Associated with COPD Exacerbation

GERD appears to be closely associated with COPD exacerbation. If you have GERD, you may even be at higher risk for hospitalization because your COPD suddenly gets worse.

Additionally, severe GERD symptoms may be linked to more frequent episodes of exacerbation in some COPD patients. Taking steps to reduce complications associated with GERD and prevent COPD exacerbation will help keep you out of the hospital.

There is some good news: Studies suggest that having GERD does not worsen lung function or clinical outcomes in COPD.

But, compared to those who are diagnosed with COPD alone, having poorly treated or unrecognized GERD certainly can negatively impact your quality of life if you suffer from both illnesses.

How Do I Manage Both GERD and COPD?

Like COPD, obtaining an accurate diagnosis of GERD is the key to effective treatment.

If you suspect that you have symptoms of GERD, make an appointment with your health care provider to get diagnosed. Your doctor may be able to diagnose you based on your symptoms, or she may ask you to undergo additional testing.

Because GERD and COPD are two different conditions, it is important that your doctors treat them both.

How Is GERD Treated?

Treatment for GERD typically starts with lifestyle changes like smoking cessation and dietary modifications (these are also important in the treatment of COPD).

When lifestyle changes alone don't work as well as you want, medications such as antacids, promotility agents, histamine receptor antagonists and proton pump inhibitors may also be added to the treatment plan.

Finally, as a last resort when lifestyle changes and medication provide little relief from GERD symptoms, surgery is also an option.

For more information on GERD, visit ​Heartburn and GERD site. Read ​COPD Treatment Guidelines for more information about treatment for COPD.


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