Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can be thought of as chronic symptoms of heartburn. The term refers to the frequent backing up (reflux) of stomach contents (food, acid, and/or bile) into the esophagus -- the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. GERD also refers to the array of medical complications, some serious, that can arise from this reflux.
Though it causes discomfort, occasional heartburn is not harmful. About 20% of adults in the U.S. experience GERD symptoms such as heartburn and acid regurgitation at least once a week. But if you have heartburn frequently and it is untreated, your stomach's acid may inflame the lining of your esophagus or swallowing tube, potentially narrowing it.
Stomach acid may also change the cells of the lining of your esophagus. This change, called Barrett's esophagus, increases the likelihood of cancer of the esophagus. Only a small percentage of people with GERD develop Barrett's esophagus. Your stomach's contents can also move into your throat and be drawn past your vocal cords and into your lungs, where they can cause damage, along with hoarseness, a chronic dry cough, or asthma.
Anyone can develop GERD at any age. You are more likely to develop it as you get older. Nearly one out of every 10 American adults has heartburn daily. Pregnant women are especially prone to GERD; nearly one out of every four pregnant women has heartburn every day.
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