Effects of uncontrolled heartburn
If heartburn symptoms and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease ( GORD) are not well managed or controlled by medication or lifestyle changes, complications can arise in the long-term.
Oesophagitis and cancer
When stomach acid repeatedly comes back up into the oesophagus, it can damage its sensitive lining. This can lead to a painful inflammation called oesophagitis. Eventually, the acid wears away at the oesophagus, causing bleeding. If the bleeding is heavy enough, blood can pass into the digestive tract and show up as dark, tarry stools. Oesophagitis can also cause ulcers - painful, open sores - in the lining of the oesophagus.
In a small percentage of people, long-term acid exposure from GORD leads to a condition called Barrett's oesophagus. With Barrett's oesophagus, new cells form to take the place of those damaged by acid reflux. But these new cells are abnormal and have the potential to turn cancerous.
Narrowing of the oesophagus
Damage to the oesophagus over time can also produce scarring (strictures) that narrows the opening of the oesophagus. These narrowed passages can make swallowing difficult and interfere with food and liquids getting into the stomach. As unpleasant as they can be, strictures actually have one upside - people who develop them find some relief from their heartburn. This is because the narrowing blocks acid from rising up into the oesophagus.
Asthma and other respiratory problems
Asthma and heartburn often go hand-in-hand. Studies have found that about 30% to 80% of patients with asthma also have symptoms of GORD. Whether asthma leads to GORD or vice versa is still unknown. One possible explanation of the connection between GORD and asthma is that acid that backs up from the stomach gets into the airways.
GORD has also been linked to several other respiratory conditions including:
Voice and throat problems
Acid from GORD can affect the throat, leading to hoarseness and laryngitis. Some people, particularly those with very severe acid reflux, have reported voice changes. On a positive note, voice and throat problems tend to respond very well to treatment for GORD.
When harsh acid makes its way into the mouth, they can wreak havoc with tooth enamel. A number of studies have noted that people with GORD have more dental erosion than normal. The condition can also lead to bad breath and an increase in saliva production.
Heartburn complications in children
Infants and children can also develop heartburn and other symptoms of GORD. Although they might not be able to express exactly what they are feeling, they can eventually develop many of the same complications as adults if the condition is not treated. Infants with severe reflux may not feed properly. This leads to poor growth. If they aspirate stomach acids into the airways, babies can develop recurrent pneumonia.
Before you worry too much about heartburn leading to oesophagitis or cancer, you should know that there are several treatments available. These treatments can both ease your heartburn and reduce the risk of complications.
A gastroenterologist can use a thin scope called an endoscope to look at your oesophagus and diagnose your condition. Treatment for GORD usually involves medication and lifestyle changes. But on rare occasions, surgery may be needed to relieve a blockage or prevent the acid from refluxing back into the oesophagus.