Acid reflux is a painful condition that also features a burning sensation in the lower part of the chest. It occurs when stomach acid, also called gastric acid gets flows upwards through the valve at the junction of the esophagus and the stomach. This acid irritates the tissues of esophagus which are not equipped to withstand acid. This irritation causes the chest pain associated with the condition.
As it is, acid reflux is a painful condition that causes a lot of discomfort. But that’s not all. Acid reflux is in fact, the primary cause of most problems that affect the digestive system. So, what happens if reflux is chronic, and it is left untreated?
Long Term Complications of Acid Reflux
Any time you have the burning sensation that is characteristic of acid reflux, you have acid irritating your esophagus. When this happens over a long period of time, it can cause serious damage to the sensitive tissues of the esophagus. The acid can also make its way to the throat and the mouth which is the reason why you may experience sour taste in your mouth.
If you suffer from acid reflux two or more times per week for most of the time, you are suffering from a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
The chronic exposure to gastric acid can have serious consequences in the esophagus, the throat, mouth and teeth. Following are the main consequences of acid reflux.
Esophagitis results from continued inflammation of the esophagus and is a common complication of untreated acid reflux. The irritation resulting from continued exposure to stomach acid leads to inflammation and swelling of the lining of the esophagus. This can make it difficult to swallow.1)
Additionally, the inflammation may lead to esophageal ulcers when the inflamed tissues break down and form sores. These can worsen the pain in the esophagus and make it torturous to even swallow fluids.
This is another consequence of acid reflux brought about by scarring. When acid reflux is left untreated for long, inflammation that leads to ulceration can follow. When the ulcers heal, they leave behind scars on the lining of the esophagus.2) Esophageal strictures form in the areas with most scarring. Strictures can lead to malnutrition and dehydration because it can be difficult to swallow solid foods or even fluids.
Loss of Weight
If you find it difficult to swallow foods and drinks, you may end up eating less food than you need to maintain a healthy body weight. If the condition continues without treatment, you may suffer a significant loss of weight besides suffering from nutrient deficiencies.
This is a condition in which long-term exposure of esophageal tissues to stomach acid leads to changes within the cells: esophagus tissue is replaced by tissue similar to intestinal lining.3) It is noteworthy that Barrett’s esophagus does not present with any obvious symptoms. Therefore, you should seek treatment without delay if you suffer from chronic acid reflux.
A further consequence of acid reflux and the resultant Barrett’s esophagus is esophageal cancer. While the cell changes associated with Barrett’s esophagus do not always lead to cancer, the condition increases the risk of the esophageal cancer. While the cancer has no symptoms in its early stages, as it progresses, the affected person will experience difficulty in swallowing, loss of weight, and gastrointestinal bleeding.4)
While acid reflux is generally associated with problems in the esophagus, it can also lead to issues in the throat and the mouth.
When the regurgitated acid reaches the throat, it can cause irritation that may lead to sore throat. It can also cause other throat issues including loss of voice, hoarseness, and a chronic cough that an affected person may experience as they feel the need to constantly clear the throat.5)
When stomach acid flows upwards to the throat, it can irritate the upper respiratory tract tissues. This usually happens when you inhale some of the acid into the trachea. The resultant irritation may cause inflammation, narrowing the airways and causing breathing difficulties.6) The inflammation may worsen asthma and other conditions of the respiratory tract such as pneumonia.
The function of stomach acid and other digestive juices is to break down food to release nutrients for absorption into the body. This should happen within the stomach and the small intestines. However, when the acid and other stomach contents go through the lower esophageal sphincter and the esophagus, they can end up in the mouth. In a similar way the acid breaks down tissues in the esophagus, it causes damage to the teeth.7)
Exposure of the teeth to gastric acid over time can cause the top layers to wear out. This leads to tooth decay which may require dental procedures for treatment.
Acid reflux can interfere with your sleep. This happens when regurgitated stomach contents get to your throat and choke you in your sleep. This experience can wake you up with your heart pounding and may interfere with your sleep for the rest of the night.
Low Quality of Life
This is yet another consequence of acid reflux. When you suffer from recurrent acid reflux, you may have to be selective in the foods that you eat, how much you eat, how and when you exercise and forego indulgences like drinking alcohol. Additionally, you may need to regularly take medication to manage the condition. This can take a toll on the quality of your life.8)
When to See a Doctor
Occasional acid reflux is normal and may have minimal consequences like slight pain in the chest and heartburn. But when the condition is recurrent or chronic, it can lead to various complications, including serious ones like cancer. The condition can also interfere with the way you live so that you no longer enjoy your life.
For this reason, if you experience acid reflux two or more times weekly for most weeks, you need to consult a doctor for testing and diagnosis. This will help you avoid or deal with the consequences of acid reflux when this is still possible.
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