Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest caused by stomach acid travelling up towards the throat (acid reflux). Biopsies of the esophagus that are obtained through the endoscope are not considered very useful for diagnosing GERD. They are useful, however, in diagnosing cancers or causes of esophageal inflammation other than acid reflux, particularly infections. Moreover, biopsies are the only great site means of diagnosing the cellular changes of Barrett’s esophagus. More recently, it has been suggested that even in patients with GERD whose esophagi appear normal to the eye, biopsies will show widening of the spaces between the lining cells, possibly an indication of damage. It is too early to conclude, however, that seeing widening is specific enough to be confidently that GERD is present.

If there are no symptoms or signs of complications and no suspicion of other diseases, a therapeutic trial of acid suppression with H2 antagonists often is used. If H2 antagonists are not adequately effective, a second trial, with the more potent PPIs, can be given. Sometimes, a trial of treatment begins with a PPI and skips the H2 antagonist. If treatment relieves the symptoms completely, no further evaluation may be necessary and the effective drug, the H2 antagonist or PPI, is continued. As discussed previously, however, there are potential problems with this commonly used approach, and some physicians would recommend a further evaluation for almost all patients they see.

Refluxed liquid that passes from the throat (pharynx) and into the larynx can enter the lungs (aspiration). The reflux of liquid into the lungs (called aspiration) often results in coughing and choking. Aspiration, however, also can occur without producing these symptoms. With or without these symptoms, aspiration may lead to infection of the lungs and result in pneumonia This type of pneumonia is a serious problem requiring immediate treatment. When aspiration is unaccompanied by symptoms, it can result in a slow, progressive scarring of the lungs ( pulmonary fibrosis ) that can be seen on chest X-rays. Aspiration is more likely to occur at night because that is when the processes (mechanisms) that protect against reflux are not active and the coughing reflex that protects the lungs also is not active.

Foam barriers provide a unique form of treatment for GERD. Foam barriers are tablets that are composed of an antacid and a foaming agent. As the tablet disintegrates and reaches the stomach, it turns into foam that floats on the top of the liquid contents of the stomach. The foam forms a physical barrier to the reflux of liquid. At the same time, the antacid bound to the foam neutralizes acid that comes into contact with the foam. The tablets are best taken after meals (when the stomach is distended) and when lying down, both times when reflux is more likely to occur. Foam barriers are not often used as the first or only treatment for GERD. Rather, they are added to other drugs for GERD when the other drugs are not adequately effective in relieving symptoms. There is only one foam barrier, which is a combination of aluminum hydroxide gel, magnesium trisilicate, and alginate (Gaviscon).

The second type of drug developed specifically for acid-related diseases, such as GERD, was a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), specifically, omeprazole ( Prilosec ). A PPI blocks the secretion of acid into the stomach by the acid-secreting cells. The advantage of a PPI over an H2 antagonist is that the PPI shuts off acid production more completely and for a longer period of time. Not only is the PPI good for treating the symptom of heartburn, but it also is good for protecting the esophagus from acid so that esophageal inflammation can heal.

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