You’ve probably had heartburn before. It’s incredibly common! In fact, one study found that something like 60 million Americans experience heartburn every single year. For most people, this heartburn will represent little more than an annoyance (perhaps a very uncomfortable annoyance, depending on what you ate).
But there are some people for whom heartburn is a much bigger deal. These unfortunate folks will likely experience heartburn symptoms regularly, if not chronically. Because heartburn is otherwise a pretty routine (and self-treatable) healthcare concern, it’s tempting to try to ignore chronic or persistent heartburn.
And that’s a problem. Persistent heartburn might be a sign of an underlying medical condition that–left untreated–can cause big problems for you down the line. If you want to find chronic heartburn relief, you’ll want to make an appointment to see your doctor.
Why won’t my heartburn go away?
Your stomach is full of acid. It’s okay, though! This acid doesn’t hurt you–in fact, it aids in digestion, helping to break down food (making it easier to digest). For the most part, this stomach acid will never bother you. That’s thanks to a nice little “valve” in your esophagus (called the lower esophageal sphincter). This valve lets food down your esophagus but prevents anything from coming back up. (Well, normally).
Heartburn occurs when (for a variety of reasons) a bit of this stomach acid finds its way up. (This is also why heartburn is called acid reflux.) For most people, heartburn occurs after eating particularly greasy, spicy, or heavy food. When that’s the case, your heartburn will usually go away after a short while.
But what if you’re left wondering, when will my heartburn go away? … And it doesn’t seem to happen? Well, when that heartburn doesn’t go away–for example, if you experience heartburn at least twice a week (every week)–you may have persistent or chronic heartburn, and it’s probably worth scheduling an appointment with your doctor.
Heartburn can cause–and be caused by-other health issues
So, is chronic heartburn dangerous? Well, the answer to that question is complicated. It’s more accurate to think of heartburn as a symptom. That symptom can cause dangerous complications (and have dangerous underlying causes).
That’s why chronic heartburn symptoms may mean that it’s time to get checked out by an ENT. Some of the most common issues associated with heartburn include the following:
- Esophagitis: This is a condition in which your esophagus becomes intensely inflamed. This severe inflammation can itself cause significant pain and discomfort, trouble swallowing, and other issues.
- Barrett’s Esophagus: When consistently exposed to stomach acid (as happens with persistent heartburn), the lining of the lower esophagus becomes damaged. Over time, this results in a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus. This condition increases your risk of developing esophageal cancer in the future, so close monitoring may be necessary.
- Esophageal ulcers: Ulcers of the esophagus are relatively uncommon, but they can be serious when they occur. Over time, exposure to stomach acid can wear down the mucus in the esophagus and cause a hole or sore to form. Ulcers like this can cause significant complications, including scarring and a narrowing of the esophagus (making swallowing more hazardous). Ulcers can also bleed. Esophageal ulcers require prompt treatment, so make sure to talk to your ENT if you suspect you may have them (or are having frequent heartburn).
- Issues with your mouth: Chronic heartburn and reflux can cause sores and lesions to form in your mouth. It can also cause issues such as bad breath.
What causes chronic heartburn? It’s usually GERD
It’s hard to talk about chronic reflux without also addressing a condition called GERD, or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. In most cases where individuals have chronic heartburn, GERD is the cause.
GERD occurs when that valve which keeps stomach acid out of your esophagus fails or partially fails. This means that stomach acid (and digesting food) does not always stay where it’s supposed to stay. How do I know if I have GERD? Well, symptoms of GERD include but are not limited to:
- Chronic heartburn.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Trouble swallowing.
- Regurgitation of food (especially when you lay down).
GERD is often treated in several different ways. In some cases, medication can help control and minimize excess stomach acid production. For more severe cases, surgery can help repair or reinforce the failing valve (sometimes all it takes is a little magnetic clamp).
If you think you have GERD, it’s important to talk to your ENT, as chronic heartburn and reflux can cause significant complications–and successful treatment of GERD can help minimize those complications.
An ENT can help manage your symptoms
Getting heartburn once in a while is perfectly normal (especially if your diet is particularly… demanding). But you shouldn’t ignore the symptoms of chronic heartburn. Doing so can lead to more significant problems down the road. When you talk to your doctor, you’ll have the chance to discuss your heartburn, and the best way to find relief from your symptoms.
Heartburn symptoms can usually be successfully managed and mitigated–which means you can find peace again! It all starts by seeking out an appointment with your ENT. Find a provider today!