A nagging sore throat had President Obama checking in for an exam recently with his doctors. The diagnosis was one that’s familiar to millions of Americans: acid reflux.
Acid reflux — aka heartburn — occurs when stomach acid sloshes up into your esophagus, irritating and inflaming the tissue, including the back of the throat.
If it happens several times a week and becomes severe, it’s called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. It’s estimated that 60 percent of U.S. adults will experience some symptoms of GERD during the year, and some 20 percent will have weekly symptoms.
Obama’s diagnosis may seem surprising, given that he’s not overweight and no longer smokes, both contributing factors to heartburn. But doctors are seeing many such acid reflux sufferers similar to the president. “It’s become an extremely common problem and we don’t know exactly why,” says gastroenterologist Arvydas Vanagunas, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Acid reflux symptoms are usually pretty obvious: Chest pain and a burning sensation are common, although don’t assume chest pain is heartburn; see a doctor to be sure it isn’t a symptom of a heart attack.
But there also can be other, less obvious acid reflux symptoms, including a bad taste in the mouth, sore throat, hoarseness, a dry cough at night, difficulty breathing or swallowing, ear pain and even sinusitis, according to Gina Sam, M.D., director of Mount Sinai Hospital’s gastrointestinal motility center in New York.
Over-the-counter antacids like Tums or Mylanta can help temporarily neutralize stomach acid, but before turning to stronger drugs to reduce or block acid production — which can have their own side effects — Sam and other experts say patients should first try making lifestyle changes, such as changing what and when they eat.
“If you’re getting a little heartburn occasionally, then lifestyle measures should work. But if you’re getting it more than three times a week, most people will require medication plus lifestyle changes,” says Vanagunas.
Here are seven tips for reducing acid reflux:
Get a wedge. Both Sam and Vanagunas say sleeping on a wedge pillow, which elevates your upper body, can help prevent acid reflux at night. Just adding extra pillows won’t work because they elevate your head, not your upper torso. It’s also easier to slip off extra pillows as you sleep.
Beware these foods. Foods that trigger heartburn can vary from person to person, but the common ones are: soda (it’s acidic, and the carbonation is a killer), fatty or fried foods, alcohol, chocolate, mint, dairy products, coffee and tea, and acidic foods like tomatoes, citrus fruits and fruit juices.
Chew gum. Chewing sugar-free, non-mint-flavored gum after eating can help reduce heartburn, some studies have shown. Chewing gum stimulates saliva production, which helps neutralize stomach acid.
No eating two to three hours before bed. “The worst thing you can do is eat and then go to bed,” says Vanagunas. Lying down with a stomach in full digestion mode is just asking for heartburn. That means no nighttime snacking or a nightcap either, both of which will ramp up stomach acid production. Your tummy needs to be empty before you lie down.
Loosen your belt. Tight clothes — from belts to jeans — can press on your stomach and exacerbate heartburn problems.
Eat slowly, and limit beverages. Relax and eat slowly — in small bites — to keep from overloading your stomach. Keep your meals small and limit how much liquid you drink while you eat, even water. Too much fluid can fill up your stomach, putting pressure on the muscle that keeps the stomach acid from escaping into your esophagus.
Drop some weight. If you are overweight, losing even a small amount of weight can help reduce the pressure on your stomach. “It can help tremendously,” says Mount Sinai’s Sam.
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