A grocery aisle is full of heartburn relief medication.
Find yourself in this aisle a bit too often? A doc shares info on when you should be alarmed. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

The burning discomfort behind your breastbone that moves up toward your neck and throat. The bitter or sour taste of acid in the back of your throat.

Heartburn.

It’s caused when acid from the stomach flows backward, or refluxes, up into the esophagus, irritating the throat, vocal cords and entrance to the lungs.

For most, it’s a minor annoyance. But for some, it’s a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition that could lead to even more serious health problems.

How can you tell?

Give yourself an acid test

Here’s a simple self-test developed by a panel of experts from the American College of Gastroenterology:

1. Do you frequently have one or more of the following:

  • An uncomfortable feeling behind the breastbone that seems to be moving upward from the stomach?
  • A burning sensation in the back of your throat?
  • A bitter acid taste in your mouth?

2. Do you often experience these problems after meals?

3. Do you experience heartburn or acid indigestion two or more times per week?

4. Do you find that antacids only provide temporary relief from your symptoms?

5. Are you taking prescription medications to treat heartburn, but still having symptoms?

If you said yes to two or more of the above, you may have GERD. To know for sure, see your doctor or a gastroenterologist. In most cases, an endoscopy should be performed to evaluate the severity of GERD and identify the possible cause.

Don’t ignore your heartburn

Up to 20 percent of Americans suffer from typical symptoms of GERD, noted Praveen Sateesh, MD, a gastroenterologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group. These symptoms include:

  • Frequent heartburn (two or more times a week)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Food sticking in the esophagus
  • Dry cough, hoarseness or sore throat
  • Regurgitation of food or sour liquid (acid reflux)
  • Sensation of a lump in the throat

While heartburn is the classic symptom, an estimated 65 percent of people with GERD experience atypical symptoms.

“These lesser-known symptoms are important to note because patients and their doctors may not associate them with reflux disease,” Dr. Sateesh said. “They therefore don’t pursue appropriate treatments.”

Atypical symptoms of GERD include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Persistent postnasal drip
  • Chronic throat clearing
  • Choking
  • Dental erosion
  • Chest pain

Over time, Dr. Sateesh said, inflammation caused by GERD wears away the lining of your esophagus and can cause some serious complications:

  • Asthma, chronic cough and ear, nose and throat problems. These are known as extra-esophageal manifestations and the connection to GERD often goes unrecognized, even by health care providers.
  • Peptic stricture.This is a chronic acid injury and scarring of the lower esophagus. Patients often complain of food sticking in their throat, Dr. Sateesh said.
  • Barrett’s esophagus. This is a precancerous condition where the lining of the esophagus changes to resemble intestinal tissue. Once this happens, patients who initially experience heartburn won’t be able to feel the burning sensation any longer and incorrectly think the problem has gone away. Barrett’s is the No. 1 risk factor for developing esophageal cancer.
  • Esophageal cancer. This cancer is increasing at fast rate in the U.S. and results when GERD or Barrett’s is left untreated for many years.

To learn more about acid reflux and heartburn, including treatment tips, watch Dr. Sateesh on Fox 17 Morning Mix.