What is acid reflux?
Acid reflux is a chronic condition, meaning it comes and goes with time and is difficult to cure completely. When stomach acid makes its way into your esophagus, the tube that links your mouth and stomach, this is acid reflux.
Depending on how intense your reflux is, you could experience this multiple times a week, have long episodes of reflux, and start to feel like your esophagus is constantly irritated. As periods of reflux get longer and more frequent, the esophagus becomes more and more damaged.
Even though GERD is a common issue, many don't recognize that they have it. In these situations, it goes untreated and can result in serious complications.
Mild acid reflux
This is the first stage of gastroesophageal reflux disease. If you have GERD, it's likely that you have this kind. With mild acid reflux, the lower part of your esophagus will be mildly inflamed.
If you have stage 1 acid reflux, you might experience:
At this stage, treatment mostly revolves around making lifestyle choices that fight reflux. You can avoid the symptoms above if you don’t consume irritating food and drinks, like coffee, alcohol, spicy foods, and fatty foods. In addition to keeping a healthy diet, you can buy over-the-counter antacids and stop eating at least three hours before you go to bed. If you try these things and you still have symptoms of GERD at night, you can try raising your head with extra pillows while you sleep.
Moderate acid reflux
About a third of people with acid reflux fall into stage 2. The main difference between mild and moderate acid reflux is that your symptoms will happen multiple times a week, resulting in more irritation and inflammation in your esophagus.
Moderate GERD, if you don’t treat it, can affect your day-to-day activities. You’ll likely need to take acid-suppressive medicines daily.
The symptoms of moderate GERD are similar to stage 1 GERD:
- Pain in your chest
- Feeling a lump in the back of your throat
- Regurgitating food and liquid
Although the symptoms are similar to less serious cases of acid reflux, they’re not so easily controlled. Over-the-counter solutions won’t be as effective. Ask your healthcare provider about antisecretory therapy via proton pump inhibitors or histamine 2 receptor blockers. You’ll need a prescription for both of these treatments. At this point in your reflux journey, you may want to start seeing a specialist who can help you mitigate these more intense symptoms.
Severe acid reflux
If you have stage three acid reflux, you’re probably already taking prescription medication and dealing with extreme symptoms every day. It’s likely that you’ll have erosive esophageal inflammation.
About 15% of people with acid reflux fall into this third stage.
If you have severe acid reflux, you might experience:
- Regurgitating food and liquid
- Sore throat
- Coughing that doesn’t get better
You need medication to control your reflux at this stage. You’re at high risk for developing serious complications. If you haven’t already found a reflux specialist, now is the time to do so. At their recommendation, you might undergo thorough testing in order to make sure your treatment is correct.
After many years of untreated stage three acid reflux, you could develop precancerous lesions or esophageal cancer. Around 10% of people who have GERD for a long period of time make it to this type of acid reflux. Also known as Barrett’s esophagus, this condition can turn into cancer if it remains untreated.
If you have stage four reflux, you might have:
- Regurgitate food and liquid
- Sore throat
- Coughing that doesn’t get better
- Food getting stuck in your esophagus while you eat
During stage four of GERD, a reflux specialist will perform tests and conduct surveillance to determine if you have a precancerous condition or cancer. You might have to undergo surgery or cancer treatments.
Finding the right treatment
In order to properly treat your acid reflux type, you need to know how severe your case is. Work with your healthcare provider to establish a plan for treatment that properly aligns with the stage of GERD you have. Remember that you might never be completely free of symptoms, but you can take measures to manage them.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Advanced Internal Medicine: "Let's Talk About GERD (Acid Reflux)."
Cooper University Health Care: "The Stages of GERD."
Houston Heartburn & Reflux Center: "The Four Stages of GERD and Treatment Options."
Top What Are the 4 Types of Acid Reflux Related Articles
7 Home Remedies That Can Help Relieve Acid RefluxWhat is acid reflux and how can you find relief? Learn what home treatments can help to relieve your symptoms.
8 Foods and Drinks That Help with Acid RefluxWhat is acid reflux and how can you treat it at home? Learn the top foods and drinks that can ease your symptoms and help you find relief. GERD symptoms start with acid reflux and then can progress to include chest pain, nausea and vomiting, sore throat, hoarseness, coughing or wheezing, excess saliva, inflamed gum tissue, and even acid erosion of your teeth. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is when stomach acid, food, and fluids move up from the stomach to the esophagus. Learn more about GERD, its common symptoms, how it's diagnosed, and your treatment options.
Beyond Food: What Triggers Heartburn and GERD?Heartburn is the burning sensation in the chest due to backflow or reflux of the acidic stomach contents into the food pipe (esophagus). Heartburn is a major symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
What Is the Difference Between Acid Reflux and Silent Reflux?Silent reflux is a lesser-known form of acid reflux that can bring on various symptoms not typical of acid reflux. The difference between acid reflux and silent acid reflux is that acid reflux results in acid traveling back up the esophagus whereas with silent reflux acid moves into the pharynx, larynx, or voice box.
Fundoplication (Acid Reflux Surgery)Fundoplication is a surgical procedure for treating GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). The procedure is to help GERD symptoms including heartburn. Eighty percent of patients with GERD also have a hiatal hernia, and during the fundoplication procedure, the hernial sac may also be surgically fixed. The procedure can be done with laparotomy, thoracotomy, or laparoscopy.
GERD (Acid Reflux, Heartburn)Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also called acid reflux, can cause symptoms like heartburn, chest pain, regurgitation, and nausea. Learn about causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.
GERD QuizWho is at risk for developing GERD? Are you? Take this quiz to learn what GERD is, if you're at risk, and what you can do about it.
GERD (Acid Reflux) in Infants and ChildrenGERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is the upward movement of stomach content, including acid, into the esophagus and sometimes into or out of the mouth. Common symptoms of GERD in children include colic, feeding problems, poor growth, frequent vomiting or coughing, heartburn, regurgitation, recurrent wheezing, pneumonia, choking, or gagging. Treatment may involve elevating the child's bed, keeping the child upright after eating, limiting foods that seem to make the reflux worse, encouraging your child to exercise, and serving several small meals a day.
GERD: Is the Damage Reversible?Gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD is caused by the weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). LES is a group of muscles that act as a valve to prevent the acidic contents of the stomach from refluxing into the esophagus.
Acid Reflux (Heartburn, GERD): Symptoms & RemediesHeartburn is a symptom of acid reflux that causes chest pain when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. Heartburn symptoms may mimic chest pain that occurs during a heart attack. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may produce other symptoms.
Heartburn vs. Acid Reflux (Differences and Similarities)
Heartburn and acid reflux are not the same thing. Heartburn is actually a symptom of acid reflux. Heartburn gets its name because it feels like a burning sensation around the heart. Another symptom that occurs with heartburn is a bitter or sour taste in the mouth, usually when you eat or lye down. Heartburn affects more than 60 million people in the US at least once a month. Acid reflux, or GERD, occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, which irritates it. Heartburn is just one symptom of acid reflux. Other symptoms of acid reflux include:
- Nausea after eating
- A feeling of fullness during or after eating
- Abdominal bloating
- Upset stomach
- Reflux laryngitis
- A tightness in the throat
- Problems swallowing
- In some people, vomiting
Causes of acid reflux and heartburn include:
- Being obese
- Slouching (poor posture)
- Medications like calcium channel blockers, theophylline, nitrates, and antihistamines
- Foods and drinks like caffeine, citrus fruits and vegetables, alcohol, and chocolate
- Increase in stomach acid
- Eating a heavy meal
- Eating before bed
The treatment for heartburn and acid reflux is to treat the underlying cause, for example, GERD, with over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, prescription medicine, natural remedies, and lifestyle changes like a eating a healthy, less fatty, spicy diet, not eating big meals, not eating before bed, and getting regular exercise to improve your posture.
Sometimes a heart attack can mimic heartburn and acid reflux because they feel very similar. If you have symptoms of chest pain, tightness in the chest, heartburn, acid reflux, jaw, tooth, or head pain; shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, sweating, discomfort in the upper middle of the abdomen, arm or upper back pain, or the general feeling of being ill, go to the nearest Emergency Department immediately because these are the symptoms of a heart attack.
American College of Gastroenterology. "Acid Reflux." 2017.
familydoctor.org. "Heartburn." Updated: Mar 2014.
National Library of Medicine; PubMed Health. "Heartburn and GERD: Treatment options for GERD." Updated: Nov 18, 2015.
How Does Acid Reflux Make You Feel? 10 Common SymptomsAcid reflux can cause you to feel pain in your chest and a sour taste in your mouth. Find out more about acid reflux and 10 common symptoms that people with the condition often experience.
Ways to Relieve Acid Reflux (GERD, Heartburn)Most people have experienced some sort of pain or discomfort following a large meal or a particular food that didn’t quite agree with their stomach. Acid reflux symptoms can happen without a specific underlying condition.
What Are the Best Foods To Eat If You Have GERD?What is GERD, and how can you manage it? Learn more about this condition and how making diet and lifestyle changes can play an important role in treatment.
What Causes Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)?Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic disorder in which acid reflux occurs at least two times a week for several weeks. Acid reflux is a condition in which the acidic stomach contents leak back in the food pipe (esophagus) and cause heartburn.