Can Chronic Heartburn Lead to Cancer? - Crozer-Keystone Health System - PA

Published on July 24, 2015

Can Chronic Heartburn Lead to Cancer?

Chronic heartburn, the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can lead to serious complications and increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

Chronic heartburn, the most common symptom of
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can
lead to serious complications and
increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

When you sit down to a delicious meal, you savor it. But uncomfortable heartburn afterward can leave you regretting that dish.

Eating too large of a meal or having too much pressure on your stomach can trigger heartburn. While occasional heartburn can be painful, it’s not harmful. However, severe, frequent and persistent heartburn can be serious.

Chronic heartburn, the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can sometimes lead to serious complications. GERD is a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach.

During normal digestion, the LES opens for food to pass into the stomach and then closes to prevent that food and any acid from the stomach from flowing back in the esophagus. But, with GERD, the LES is weak or relaxes, allowing a backflow into the esophagus.

If this is happening frequently and is left untreated, stomach acids may be wreaking havoc on your esophagus, enflaming its lining and potentially narrowing it. Stomach acid also has the ability to change the cells lining the esophagus – a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which affects an estimated 10 to 15 percent of GERD sufferers. These cell changes can increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

Additionally, your stomach's contents can 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.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent these complications and manage your GERD.

First, you can manage mild heartburn by eating smaller meals. You should also try to finish dinner three to four hours before bed and avoid late-night snacks – having food in your stomach when you lie down can trigger reflux.

Eating certain foods can also contribute to your heartburn. Foods like tomatoes, citrus fruits, garlic, onions, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, caffeinated products and peppermint can relax the LES, triggering a backflow. In addition, foods that are high in fats and oils can also lead to heartburn.

Aside from food, some lifestyle factors can also cause and contribute to heartburn. Excess stress and a lack of sleep can result in an increase in acid production, also contributing to heartburn. Smoking, among all of its other harmful health effects, can relax the LES and stimulate stomach acid, serving as a major heartburn contributor.

Being overweight or obese can put pressure on your stomach, hindering the LES’s ability to close tightly.

Additionally, your doctor may prescribe medications to reduce the production of stomach acid, neutralize it and lessen the release of it, as well as medications that speed up the movement of food from your stomach to intestines.

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