By Jacqueline L. Scheier, D.O.
If you’ve lost your voice, have a sore throat, or a nagging cough that won’t seem to go away, it may not just be a cold or seasonal allergies. Many of the symptoms that we normally associate with a virus or a heavy dose of pollen in the air may actually be caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
More than 60 million Americans have GERD, but not all of them experience the same symptoms. Some will experience the classic heartburn and acid indigestion that are the hallmarks of the disease. But others may have subtler signs that something is wrong, which on the surface may not seem like a problem with the digestive system. Knowing what to look out for can help you identify a potential issue before it becomes worse.
Some Surprising Symptoms of GERD
In addition to the heartburn we typically associate with GERD, it also creates a wide range of symptoms that can affect other parts of your body, including:
- Hoarseness and sore throat: When the acid from your stomach reaches your throat and voice box, it can cause pain and a scratchy voice. If the condition persists, you may lose your voice completely.
- Unexplained coughing: If your cough doesn’t go away by itself, especially if it’s a dry cough, this may be another sign of GERD.
- Asthma: The acid from your stomach can also irritate your air passages, creating or worsening asthma.
- Ear pain: While less common, ear pain and recurring ear infections may also be a sign of acid reflex and GERD.
What Causes GERD?
GERD develops when a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is not functioning properly. It normally regulates the passage of food from the throat to the stomach (like a one-way valve), and keeps acids in the stomach where they belong. However, if for some reason the LES weakens, those stomach acids can make their way into your throat and cause irritation that, if left untreated, can become GERD.
A variety of risk factors contribute to developing GERD. If you’re obese or overeat frequently, this can put pressure on your stomach and affect the normal functioning of the LES. Pregnancy and hiatal hernias can also create the same kind of pressure that leads to acid reflux and GERD. Diseases such as diabetes can increase the risk for GERD, too. Some people with diabetes experience gastroparesis, a condition that causes the stomach to empty slower, which leads to reflux.
Reducing Your Risk
If you’re currently experiencing any of these symptoms of find yourself in a high-risk category for GERD, your first step should be to speak with your doctor. They will help you identify a strategy to help you feel better and potentially reverse the progression of the disease.
Part of reducing your risk will be to avoid certain foods and lifestyle choices that may trigger symptoms. This may include avoiding chocolate, peppermint, fried and fatty foods, coffee, and alcohol. You should also quit smoking, since smokers are more likely to develop GERD than nonsmokers. If changing your diet and lifestyle do not help alleviate your symptoms, your doctor may recommend antacids or prescribe medications such as H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors to help.
About the Author
Specializing in family medicine, Dr. Scheier strives to work with patients in obtaining their short-term and long-term health goals. She works to gain their trust through open and honest conversation in assisting them to achieve these goals. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Scheier, please call 484-446-3660.