The 4 Most Common Complications of GERD

As a gastroenterologist, one of the more common emergencies I have to deal with is removing a stuck piece of food from a patient’s esophagus. It is very alarming and uncomfortable to the poor patient and not very fun for the on-call doctor either. It can happen due to complications from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Below reviews the more common complications from GERD in hopes that if you have it, you can seek treatment before something like this happens to you.

Twenty percent of the total population of the United States suffers from GERD. Because it is so prevalent, I often see patients blow it off as just a nuisance, not a serious disease. Although it can often times be controlled by lifestyle changes, it is not something to be taken lightly. 

If you have any symptoms of GERD, you should be checked out by a gastroenterologist. GERD should be taken seriously because it can lead to other complications if left untreated. The four most common complications are erosive esophagitis, Barrett’s esophagus, esophageal stricture, and asthma.

Erosive Esophagitis

Erosive esophagitis is the inflammation and ulceration (open sore) of the lining of the esophagus. This happens when there is excessive reflux (backflow) of stomach acids, which can damage and even cause necrosis (cell death) to your esophageal lining. The open sores are painful and may bleed, which worsens the difficulty of swallowing.

Erosive esophagitis is commonly treated with medication.

Barrett’s Esophagus

Barrett’s esophagus is another complication of chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease. About 10 percent of people who suffer from GERD develop Barrett’s esophagus.  Barrett’s esophagus occurs when the normal cells that make up the lining of your food pipe are replaced by a different type of cells, the cell type that makes up the lining of the intestine.

This condition increases your risk of developing esophageal cancer. Thus, it is recommended to undergo regular endoscopic exams to check for early warning signs of cancer.

Esophageal Stricture

Esophageal stricture happens when the opening of your esophagus becomes narrow. This may result from the healing process of erosive esophagitis (ulcers on the esophageal lining). In the process, collagen (protein structure) is deposited to repair the damaged esophageal lining in erosive esophagitis. When the collagen fibers contract (shorten), it results in the stricture or narrowing of your esophageal opening. This condition makes it difficult to swallow solid foods and sometimes, food impaction may occur. The treatment for esophageal stricture includes medications that suppress excessive acid production, and dilation (widening) of the affected esophageal opening.


Asthma is a chronic breathing disorder in which the airways (bronchi) in the lungs become narrow and inflame. This results in difficulty and shortness of breathing, coughing, excessive mucus production, and a whistling or wheezing sound when you breathe.

Many research studies have shown that GERD is prevalent in patients with asthma. In fact, around 25 to 80 percent of asthmatic people have GERD.

Although GERD is not the main cause of asthma, it can be a major triggering factor. There are proposed mechanisms as to how GERD worsens asthma and how these two diseases are related to each other, which include increased vagal tone, heightened bronchial (airway) reactivity, and microaspiration (entry of small amount of food or fluid into the lungs) of stomach content. The acid reflux in the esophagus   causes narrowing of the airways (bronchoconstriction). As a result, the airflow obstruction in asthma worsens.

Another factor which strongly links GERD and asthma is the research which shows the correlation between GERD treatment and asthma symptoms. A majority of asthma patients who improved their GERD with treatment also showed improvement in their asthma symptoms and general well-being.

The list of complications of gastroesophageal reflux disease may look daunting; however it is a list that is easily preventable. Familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of GERD because some of them may not be intuitive. If you have any of the symptoms of GERD, make an appointment with your gastroenterologist to ensure proper diagnosis and early medical intervention. Early intervention can prevent any later complications, including that ER visit with a food impaction!

Continue Reading