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Holiday Heartburn May Mask Serious Problem, Physician Warns

STRATFORD, NJ - Maybe it was the second slice of pumpkin pie, the glass of red wine or that extra cup of coffee after dinner. Whatever the cause, you’re tempted to think that uncomfortable feeling that’s moving upward from your stomach and leaving a bitter acid taste in the back of your mouth is probably just a little heartburn. But is it?

“If you regularly experience heartburn, indigestion or an acidic taste in the back of your mouth and antacids provide only temporary relief, then you may have gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD),” says Dr. Richard Walters, a gastroenterologist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)-School of Osteopathic Medicine. “Although it sounds ominous, GERD is one of the most common disorders we see. But, like most diseases, it can become serious if left untreated.”

According to Dr. Walters, GERD affects about 20 percent of the adult population and occurs when the opening between the esophagus and stomach relaxes at incorrect times, allowing acidic stomach contents to backflow into the esophagus. Other symptoms of GERD include a persistent dry cough, trouble swallowing or chest pain. Although it is usually easy to control with lifestyle changes or medication, GERD can lead to more serious complications, such as esophagitis, which is a chronic inflammation of the esophagus. A small number of people with GERD will develop a pre-cancerous condition known as Barrett’s Esophagus.

“Unfortunately, many tempting holiday foods – chocolates, alcohol, fatty foods, carbonated beverages, red wine, nuts and acidic fruits and vegetables – can aggravate GERD symptoms,” Dr. Walters said. “And while stress, alone, doesn’t cause acid reflux, it can cause you to eat too quickly or to eat or drink too much which can, in turn, lead to heartburn.”

To help relieve GERD symptoms, Dr. Walters suggests trying these lifestyle changes:

  • Eat smaller meals to avoid filling your stomach. A full stomach will exert upward pressure on stomach acids.

  • Avoid lying down or bending over after a meal.

  • Finish eating meals and nighttime snacks two to three hours before bedtime.

  • Limit consumption of foods that seem to cause your heartburn.

  • Don’t rely on spearmint or peppermint for relief. Contrary to popular belief, both will frequently make heartburn worse.

  • Sleep on your left side. This reduces the chance of acid backing up from the stomach.

  • Raise the head of your bed four to six inches and use pillows or folded blankets to elevate the entire top half (not just the head) of your body.

  • Avoid over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, that can contribute to GERD symptoms. Instead, use acetaminophen for minor pain relief.


“If you’ve tried lifestyle changes and still end up reaching for the antacid bottle most nights, or if you experience a persistent dry cough, asthma-like symptoms or trouble swallowing, it’s time to talk to your physician about GERD,” Dr. Walters says.

Media interested in interviewing Dr. Walters should contact Jerry Carey, UMDNJ News Service, at 856-566-6171 or careyge@umdnj.edu.

The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) is New Jersey’s only health sciences university with more than 6,000 students on five campuses attending three medical schools, the State’s only dental school, a graduate school of biomedical sciences, a school of health related professions, a school of nursing and New Jersey’s only school of public health. UMDNJ operates University Hospital, a Level I Trauma Center in Newark, and University Behavioral HealthCare, which provides a continuum of health care services with multiple locations throughout the state.

 

Name: Jerry Carey
Phone: 856-566-6171

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