As many as 10 to 20 percent of people in the United States may have acid reflux. But it’s almost impossible to get an exact count, since so many treat their symptoms with one of the vast number of over-the-counter medications, like H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). Unfortunately, self-treating isn’t always effective and can increase the risk of side effects.
One side effect of untreated or improperly treated acid reflux can be esophageal ulcers, a form of peptic ulcer that occurs higher up in the area where the esophagus and stomach junction meet. If you end up with this type of ulcer it may be prudent to also check for a Helicobacter pylori infection or other infections that raise esophageal-ulcer risk. If you smoke, drink alcohol, frequently use NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), or have other immune-compromising conditions, then you may be more likely to experience esophageal ulcers as well.
Some of the symptoms to look out for include:
- Burning pain in the chest (may be mild or severe)
- Acid reflux (heartburn)
- Nausea and indigestion
- Painful bloating
- Poor or no appetite
- Throat pain or pain when swallowing
- Dry cough not caused by asthma or an infection
- Sour, acidic taste in the mouth
If you have any of the above symptoms it is important to speak with your physician to get the proper treatment and not just self-treat with OTC medications.
Complications can arise from esophageal ulcers, including internal bleeding from the open sore in the esophagus, infection due to holes caused by the ulcers (that allow in bacteria), and even obstructions caused by scarring of the damaged tissue. The best way to prevent these complications is to see your physician immediately as soon as you recognize symptoms.
Treatment for esophageal ulcers can vary depending on the root cause. You may be required to make lifestyle changes; to stop smoking, refrain from taking NSAIDs while your ulcer is healing, limit alcohol, and follow a special diet. In some cases your physician may need to prescribe antibiotics to treat any underlying infection that is contributing to the ulcer as well as acid reducers like H2 blockers or PPIs.
No matter your physician’s decision, be sure to follow his or her advice to the letter and finish all medications as directed. If you are still feeling unwell or if your symptoms get worse contact your physician immediately or, if necessary, head to the ER.
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Jennifer Rackley is a nutritionist and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.