How Many People Have Acid Reflux?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a very common condition

Acid reflux medications
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Question: How many people have acid reflux?

Answer: That depends on how you define "acid reflux." If you're talking about occasional heartburn — perhaps from overindulging in some food or drink that didn't quite agree with you — then about one-third of people have it once a year or more. In fact, occasional heartburn is one of the most common medical symptoms people report.

Meanwhile, if you're talking about gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, fewer people have it, but it's still a really common condition.

GERD is defined as frequent heartburn or regurgitation (when food that's in your stomach comes back up to your mouth), and it affects between 18% and 28% of the adult U.S. population. That means between 42 million and 64 million adults in the U.S. suffer from GERD.

Many people use the terms acid reflux, heartburn and GERD interchangeably, which is why there can be some confusion when you ask how many people suffer from the condition. But regardless of what you call it, this is a problem that many, many people experience at some point during their lifetime.

Possible Symptoms of Acid Reflux

When you have acid reflux, you might feel a burning sensation in your chest (hence the term "heart" burn), and you might taste stomach acid combined with whatever food you just ate, especially in the back of your throat. That's because the valve between your stomach and your esophagus — which carries your food from your mouth to your stomach — isn't closing properly, and is allowing the contents of your stomach to move in the wrong direction, back up towards your mouth.

With GERD, you'll have these symptoms chronically. Guidelines for physicians who treat the condition call for a GERD diagnosis when a patient has mild symptoms on two or more days a week, or moderate-to-severe symptoms at least one day a week.

It's also possible to have GERD without actually having symptoms of heartburn or acid reflux.

In this case, you'll have different symptoms: you may feel like you're wheezing or are having trouble breathing, you may have difficulty swallowing, or you could have a dry cough. Talk to your physician if you're experiencing any of these symptoms, as treatment for GERD may help.

Everyone Can Get GERD

Anyone can be diagnosed with GERD, from infancy into old age. The percentage of people who have the condition varies from region to region worldwide, however, and those in North America are particularly prone to the condition.

Europeans, Middle Easterners and South Americans also have high rates: in Europe, between 9% and 26% of the adult population meets the criteria to be diagnosed with GERD, as do up to 33% of adults in the Middle East and 23% of adults living in South America. Meanwhile, the rate of GERD in East Asian adults is only around 2% to 8%, and in Australian adults it's 12%. Children in all regions have much lower rates of GERD than adults.

Having GERD may not seem like a big deal, but if you have symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about them.

GERD places you at risk for a more serious condition called Barrett's esophagus, in which the lining of your esophagus becomes damaged from contact with stomach acid. You're also at higher risk for cancer of the esophagus, although that's quite rare.

Sources:

El-Serag HB et al. Update on the epidemiology of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease: a systematic review. Gut. 2014 Jun;63(6):871-80.

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Heartburn: Nothing to Do with the Heart fact sheet. Accessed Jan. 31, 2016.

Katz PO, Gerson LB, Vela MF. Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of gastroesophageal reflux disease. American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2013 Mar;108(3):308-28.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. GERD fact sheet. Accessed Jan. 31, 2016.

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