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Severe GERD Symptoms Start with Frequent Heartburn

Updated on October 27, 2016

Severe GERD symptoms usually begin with frequent heartburn, but other symptoms also point toward this potentially dangerous disease.

Many people have occasional heartburn, which by itself is not a GERD symptom. If heartburn arrives more often, and other physical ailments start to arise as well, individuals should see their doctors to find out if the diagnosis is GERD.

These four simple letters stand for gastroesophageal reflux disease, a digestive disorder also known as acid reflux. But identifying and treating the disease is not so simple.

GERD is a digestive ailment with many potential causes and symptoms that in some cases will appear slowly over time as a result of the aging process, changes in diet, the development of food sensitivities and other factors.

Other potential causes, such as obesity, smoking and the use of certain medications, vary from one person to another.

The good news is that severe GERD symptoms can be treated successfully simply through diet changes or a combination of diet and medication for more advanced conditions. Some severe symptoms can be treated by diet alone.

The bad news is that if left untreated, GERD can cause some long-term damage to the body, especially the esophagus. More extreme cases may require surgery.

Heartburn is one of the most common symptoms. © Scott Bateman
Heartburn is one of the most common symptoms. © Scott Bateman

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Heartburn: The Most Common Symptom

Heartburn is that nasty burning sensation that rises up in the throat and seems to take forever to go away.

It often happens at night or first thing in the morning when people are lying down in bed. It also happens after eating a meal with acidic foods or drinking beverages that are acidic, especially coffee, wine and colas.

More than 60 million Americans suffer from heartburn once a month and as many as 15 million may have it once a day, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.

Heartburn occurs if too much stomach fluid comes in contact with the lining of the esophagus over a period of time.

These fluids consist of acid, digestive enzymes, and other matter that can inflame or injure the esophagus.

This interaction between the esophagus and stomach fluids then results in a burning sensation known as heartburn or acid indigestion. The burning sensation typically occurs in the throat.

The human body has a way of preventing the contact that takes place between the stomach acid and the esophagus.

A valve at the base of the esophagus normally prevents the acid from moving up from the stomach. When the valve doesn't function correctly, the result can be mild to severe cases of GERD.

The valve may even move up into the chest, which results in a hiatial hernia, according to the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

Frequent coughing is one sympton of severe GERD. © Scott Bateman
Frequent coughing is one sympton of severe GERD. © Scott Bateman
Trouble swallowing is another symptom of GERD. © Scott Bateman
Trouble swallowing is another symptom of GERD. © Scott Bateman
Vomiting blood requires immediate attention by a doctor. © Scott Bateman
Vomiting blood requires immediate attention by a doctor. © Scott Bateman

When Heartburn Becomes GERD

In the case of GERD, the valve relaxes too often or at the wrong times, which allows the acid to flow back up.

When someone experiences heartburn two or more times a week, the frequency indicates the possibility of GERD.

Other symptoms include:

  • Trouble swallowing or a sensation that food is trapped behind the breastbone

  • Having black or tarry bowel movements

  • Weight loss

  • A choking sensation, shortness of breath, coughing or a hoarse voice, all indications that stomach acid has moved up the windpipe.
  • Bad breath
  • Vomiting blood

For some people, even sitting a certain way with a tight belt can aggravate the condition.

GERD symptoms aren't limited to adults. They can occur in children and infants as well. Their symptoms include:

  • Trouble with breathing
  • Frequent coughing
  • Recurring vomiting
  • A failure to thrive

Symptoms often appear more often after eating. Their severity depends on the types of food or beverages consumed and whether they are strong triggers, such as coffee.

Chest Pains: GERD or Heart Attack?

One of the more common symptoms of GERD is chest pain. But it also is a symptom of a possible heart attack.

Seek immediate medical attention if the chest pain includes other signs such as shortness of breath, jaw pain or arm pain.

Severe GERD Symptoms

Although vomiting blood is one of the more severe symptoms, others from the above list can become severe based on their frequency, duration or intensity.

Heartburn can go from infrequent to several times a week or occurring every day.

Shortness of breath or trouble swallowing episodes may last for hours.

In fact, shortness of breath may be so severe that it results in a diagnosis of asthma that requires a ventilator.

Vomiting is one of the more severe symptoms of GERD.
Vomiting is one of the more severe symptoms of GERD. | Source


Although self diagnosis is possible, any of these symptoms that become frequent or severe need diagnosis by a doctor.

If left untreated, GERD may lead to serious digestive damage, especially to the esophagus.

GERD has been known to cause severe chest pain that seem like a heart attack.

The esophagus may narrow, show more bleeding or result in a change in the lining called Barrett's esophagus.

More dangerously, people who suffered severe and prolonged heartburn over many years were at a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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A number of home remedies are available that may help relieve GERD and heartburn symptoms.

  • Change sleeping habits. Elevate the head of the bed by using an extra pillow so that stomach acids don't rise up in the throat as easily. Don't go to bed within two hours of eating. Lying down on the couch to watch TV after eating an acidic meal also can trigger the symptoms.

  • Change eating habits. Avoid acidic foods and beverages such as citrus, tomatoes, wine, coffee and colas.

  • Reduce or end alcohol. It affects the valve in the esophagus that controls the backflow of stomach acids. Numerous studies have found an association between GERD and alcohol, especially heavy consumption of it.

  • Reduce or end smoking. Smoking also affects that valve.

When lifestyle changes are not enough, medicines will help. A variety of over-the-counter treatments are available. Discuss the best options with your pharmacist after discussing treatment options with your doctor.

When such over-the-counter and lifestyle options are not enough, a variety of prescription medications are available.

And when prescriptions are not enough, certain surgical procedures may be required.

The most common form of surgery for treating GERD is fundoplication. The surgeon makes a large incision in the abdomen for open surgery or a few small cuts for a version called laparoscopic, which involves the use of tools inserted into the abdomen.

During the procedure, the surgeon sews the top part of the stomach around the lower esophagus to tighten it and help slow acid from flowing up from the stomach.

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Make Diet Changes Now

For anyone who suspects the onset of GERD, one of the best and simplest ways to treat potential symptoms if with a diet plan.

Some people find that making a food journal is a good way of tracking what they are eating or drinking and especially in what quantities.

Another way is simply identifying some of the top potential triggers -- including colas, coffee, acidic foods -- and then cutting back on them one at a time to see if any of the changes help.

Severe Symptoms Require Doctor's Care

If any of the above symptoms become severe, seek medical attention immediately.

Also seek medical care if mild symptoms do not improve as a result of making dietary changes.

© 2014 Scott Bateman


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    • promisem profile image

      Scott Bateman 22 months ago

      I'm truly sorry you ended up with Barrett's. I didn't get it, but my symptoms got to the point where I had severe problems with breathing and dizziness. I had to use two inhalers to deal with it.

      Like you, the main culprits turned out to be coffee and soda along with the aging process and a bad diet. I got rid of coffee and soda and ate a lot more fruits and vegetables that have anti-inflammation nutrients. Now I'm almost symptom free.

      Thanks for your comments and best of luck.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 22 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Very important article. Thx for getting the word out. I have Barrett's and have been treated for over a decade (will eventually need surgery). My esophagus was in bad shape from too much black coffee and too much orange juice. And the biggest culprit was soda. I stopped both OJ and the soda all together. Don't miss it. Added milk to the coffee. Great tips. Sleeping is enormously helpful. Voted up and shared.

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