Can Acid Reflux Cause Life Threatening Complications?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Most people experience mild reflux from time to time. The risk of complications is generally low when the reflux is minor.

In contrast, frequent acid reflux can be a sign of a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

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Although GERD itself isn’t a life threatening condition, it can lead to more serious health issues and complications if it’s left untreated.

Read on to find out about the more serious complications of GERD.

What to know about acid reflux and GERD

Mild or occasional acid reflux isn’t usually cause for concern. While it may cause temporary discomfort, it doesn’t present any major health risks.

People who experience acid reflux more than twice a week may have GERD, a condition that’s associated with more symptoms and complications.

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Common symptoms of GERD include:

  • bad breath
  • chest pain
  • cough
  • difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • heartburn
  • indigestion
  • nausea
  • regurgitation
  • sore throat

What types of complications can be caused by GERD?

In some cases, GERD may lead to complications. Some of them can be serious, especially if they’re left untreated. Many of these complications are related to each other.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the more serious health issues that can arise due to GERD.

Esophagitis

Frequent acid reflux can trigger inflammation in the esophagus, a condition known as esophagitis.

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Esophagitis makes swallowing difficult and sometimes painful. Other symptoms include:

  • sore throat
  • hoarse voice
  • heartburn

Chronic, untreated esophagitis may cause esophageal ulcers and strictures. It may also increase your risk for esophageal cancer.

Esophageal ulcers

Stomach acid can damage the lining of the esophagus, causing a painful ulcer. This type of peptic ulcer is known as an esophageal ulcer.

It may cause symptoms, such as:

  • a burning sensation in your chest area
  • indigestion
  • pain when swallowing
  • nausea
  • heartburn
  • bloody stools
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However, not everyone who has an esophageal ulcer has symptoms.

If left untreated, an esophageal ulcer can lead to more serious complications, such as an esophageal perforation (a hole in the esophagus) or a bleeding ulcer.

Esophageal stricture

When GERD is left untreated, it can trigger inflammation, scarring, or abnormal tissue growth (neoplasia) in your esophagus. As a result, your esophagus can become narrower and tighter.

This condition, known as esophageal stricture, often makes it difficult or painful to swallow. It can also make it harder for food and liquids to pass from your esophagus to your stomach, and breathing can feel constricted.

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In some cases, solid or dense foods can get lodged in the esophagus. This may increase your risk for choking. Plus, if you can’t easily swallow foods and liquid, it may lead to malnutrition and dehydration.

Aspiration pneumonia

Stomach acid that rises to your throat or mouth can be inhaled into your lungs. This can lead to aspiration pneumonia, a lung infection that causes symptoms like:

  • fever
  • deep cough
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • fatigue
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  • death

Aspiration pneumonia can become serious and even fatal if left untreated.

Treatment usually involves antibiotics and, in more severe cases, hospitalization and supportive care for breathing.

Barrett’s esophagus
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Ongoing damage to the esophagus caused by stomach acid can trigger cellular changes to the lining of the esophagus.

With Barrett’s esophagus, the squamous cells that line the lower esophagus are replaced by gland cells. These cells are similar to the ones that line your intestines.

Barrett’s esophagus develops in about 10 to 15 percent of people who have GERD. It tends to affect men almost twice as often as women.

There’s a slight risk that these gland cells can become cancerous and cause esophageal cancer.

Esophageal cancer
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People who have GERD are at a slightly increased risk of a certain type of esophageal cancer known as adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.

This cancer affects the lower part of the esophagus, causing symptoms like:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • weight loss
  • chest pain
  • coughing
  • severe indigestion
  • severe heartburn

Esophageal cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms in its early stages. People usually only notice symptoms once the cancer has reached a more advanced stage.

Besides GERD, other factors that may increase your risk for esophageal cancer include:

  • being male
  • being older than 55
  • using tobacco products
  • drinking alcohol regularly
  • being overweight or obese
  • having had radiation treatment to your chest or upper abdomen

How to prevent complications from acid reflux

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You may be able to reduce acid reflux and prevent complications by adopting the following habits:

  • Avoid certain foods. Greasy, fatty, acidic, and spicy foods are more likely to lead to reflux. Other foods, such as peppermint, tomato sauce, garlic, onions, citrus, and dark chocolate are also known to trigger reflux.
  • Change your eating habits. Try to eat meals at least 2 to 3 hours before you go to bed or lie down. This will give your stomach time to digest the food you’ve eaten. Also, eating smaller portions and chewing slowly may help prevent excess reflux.
  • Lose excess weight. Carrying excess weight around your middle can push your stomach upward, making it easier for acid to rise into your esophagus.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine. Both alcohol and caffeine can increase acid reflux.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking makes it more difficult for the sphincter that separates your esophagus from your stomach to close properly after food enters your stomach.
  • Sleep on an incline. If acid reflux and heartburn strike at night, place some blocks under the head of your bed so that your upper body is slightly higher than your stomach. You can also look into special wedge pillows that are made for people with GERD.
  • Wear looser clothing. Tight-fitting pants can put additional pressure on your abdomen, forcing the contents of your stomach upward.

When to see a doctor

You should see a doctor if you experience GERD symptoms more than a couple times a week, even if your symptoms are mild.

You should also see your doctor if you regularly take over-the-counter antacids or medication for heartburn. These drugs can help neutralize stomach acid, but they won’t heal inflammation in the esophagus.

Also, overuse of these medications may cause side effects.

Treatment for acid reflux

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There are a range of treatments for acid reflux caused by GERD. Your doctor may suggest a combination of lifestyle changes and medication.

Common medications used to treat acid reflux include:

  • antacids
  • H2 blockers
  • proton pump inhibitors
  • prokinetics

If these treatments don’t help, your doctor might recommend surgery.

There are a few different types of procedures used to control GERD. Most are focused on improving the function of the sphincter that keeps stomach acid from rising up the esophagus.

The bottom line

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Occasional acid reflux isn’t usually associated with long-term or serious complications.

However, when acid reflux occurs frequently and is left untreated, it can lead to conditions such as esophagitis, ulcers, strictures, aspiration pneumonia, and Barrett’s esophagus.

People who have frequent episodes of acid reflux are also at a slightly increased risk for developing esophageal cancer.

Seeking treatment for acid reflux can help decrease the likelihood of developing serious or life threatening complications.

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