Gastroesophageal reflux is a problem that can affect anyone, from newborns to seniors, athletes to “couch potatoes”, women and men. It is important to recognize its symptoms and learn how to prevent them from leaving a bad taste in your mouth.
What is gastroesophageal reflux?
Love extra-spicy chicken wings, but hate the nasty heartburn and bad taste they leave behind? You may be suffering from gastroesophageal reflux. Knowing more about this condition will allow you to avoid its inconveniences.
The stomach produces gastric juices, which are acidic substances that help with food digestion. Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when part of the stomach contents comes back up in the oesophagus. The oesophagus is the tube that links the stomach and the mouth and is located behind the sternum. Because the oesophagus’ lining is incapable of fighting off acidity, the result is a sensation of burning and irritation. Other symptoms can also include:
- chest pain or discomfort;
- dry cough and hoarse voice;
- acidic regurgitation causing a bitter taste in the mouth;
- chronic sore throat;
- asthma at night, not caused by an allergy;
- bad breath;
- dental problems.
In Canada, approximately 30% of the population is said to suffer from occasional bouts of gastroesophageal reflux. For most affected individuals, the cause of reflux is likely a malfunctioning lower oesophageal sphincter, which is a muscle that separates the oesophagus and the stomach. This muscle’s role is to keep the stomach’s contents in the right place: the stomach!
Reflux can also be triggered by certain conditions, such as pregnancy or a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia occurs when a part of the stomach moves upward, from the stomach to the thorax. Your doctor can tell you if you suffer from this condition. Also, some medications can slow down the passage of food from the stomach to the bowel and thus weaken the oesophageal sphincter. This causes food to come back into the oesophagus.
For most affected adults, the condition is chronic and symptoms appear intermittently. In babies, reflux usually disappears between the age of six and 12 months.
Am I at risk?
Risk factors for gastroesophageal reflux are:
- being over 50 years old;
- being overweight or obese;
- pregnancy, especially in the third trimester;
- smoking (cigarettes, pipe or cigars);
- certain medications (anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, etc.).
In addition, some foods can aggravate the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux. It is therefore important to avoid the following:
- alcoholic beverages;
- caffeine found in tea, coffee and cola;
- fatty and spicy foods;
- citrus fruit (oranges, lemons, grapefruit, etc.) and their juice;
Other foods can also aggravate your symptoms. You should therefore choose foods that do not trigger heartburn.
You can alleviate the symptoms of reflux by making a few changes to your lifestyle:
- Eat meals earlier, especially dinner.
- Eat lighter, but more frequent meals.
- Avoid lying down within the first two hours following a meal.
- Quit smoking.
- Eliminate sources of stress.
- Avoid wearing tight clothing.
- Avoid intense exercise after meals.
- Raise the head of your bed by 15 cm and sleep on your left side.
What about treatment?
If the aforementioned measures prove insufficient to relieve your symptoms, it is possible to take certain medications. Several of these medications are available over the counter. Consult your pharmacist so that he or she can determine which one is best for you and tell you how to use it correctly. However, contact your doctor without delay if:
- you have difficulty swallowing or have pain when swallowing;
- you wheeze when you cough or breathe;
- you constantly feel the need to gargle;
- you have stomach pain, are vomiting or losing weight;
- you have bloody sputum, vomit or stools;
- your pain is no longer alleviated by a medication that used to work well for you.
If you think you have gastroesophageal reflux, simply being careful with what you eat and making a few lifestyle changes may make a world of difference. If you wish to learn more about this hot topic, your pharmacist is always there to advise you… don’t hesitate to ask!