Acid reflux: a comprehensive guide

Written by: Dr Andy Li
Edited by: Aoife Maguire

Acid reflux is a digestive disorder affecting millions worldwide, is often a source of discomfort and concern for many. Consultant gastroenterologist Dr Andy Li answers your commonly asked questions about the condition and provides advice on how to manage symptoms.


What is acid reflux, and how is it different from heartburn?


Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), occurs when stomach acid flows backwards into the oesophagus. This backward flow can irritate the lining of the oesophagus and cause a range of symptoms.



Heartburn, on the other hand, is one of the primary symptoms of acid reflux. It manifests as a burning sensation in the chest or throat, often after eating or lying down. In essence, acid reflux is the broader condition, while heartburn is a specific symptom of it.


What causes acid reflux?


Several factors can contribute to the development of acid reflux, including the following:


Weak lower oesophageal sphincter (LES): The LES is a muscular ring that separates the oesophagus from the stomach. When it becomes weak or relaxes inappropriately, stomach acid can flow into the oesophagus, causing acid reflux.


Hiatus hernia: a hiatus hernia occurs when a portion of the stomach pushes up through the diaphragm. This displacement can disrupt the normal functioning of the LES, leading to acid reflux.


Dietary factors: certain foods and beverages can trigger acid reflux, including spicy foods, citrus fruits, tomato-based products, chocolate, coffee, and alcohol.


Overeating: consuming large meals or lying down immediately after eating can increase the risk of acid reflux.


Obesity: excess body weight can put pressure on the abdomen, promoting the backward flow of stomach acid into the oesophagus.


What are the symptoms of acid reflux?


The symptoms of acid reflux can vary in severity and may include:


Heartburn: a burning sensation in the chest, often after eating or lying down.


Regurgitation: the backflow of sour-tasting stomach contents into the mouth.


Difficulty swallowing: feeling a lump in the throat or experiencing difficulty swallowing (dysphagia).


Chronic cough: persistent coughing and wheezing, especially at night.


Sore throat: irritation of the throat lining can lead to a persistent sore throat.


Are there medications available for treating acid reflux?


Yes, several medications can provide relief from acid reflux symptoms. Over-the-counter antacids, which neutralise stomach acid, can offer short-term relief. Alginate therapies such as Gaviscon can also be effective in the short term. H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) may provide more prolonged relief, but these often require a prescription for long term use.


It is essential to consult a healthcare professional to determine the most appropriate medication for your specific case.


What lifestyle changes can help manage acid reflux?


Lifestyle modifications are crucial in managing acid reflux. Some effective strategies include:


Maintaining a healthy weight: losing excess weight can reduce pressure on the abdomen and alleviate symptoms.


Dietary adjustments: avoid trigger foods and beverages, eat smaller, more frequent meals, and refrain from lying down immediately after eating.


Elevating the head of the bed: elevating the upper body during sleep can help prevent stomach acid from flowing back into the oesophagus.


Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol: both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can worsen acid reflux symptoms.


Can acid reflux lead to complications?


If left untreated, acid reflux can lead to various complications, including:


Barrett's oesophagus: chronic acid exposure can lead to changes in the lining of the oesophagus, increasing the risk of oesophageal cancer.


Oesophageal strictures: repeated damage from stomach acid can lead to narrowing of the oesophagus, making swallowing difficult.


Respiratory issues: severe acid reflux can cause or exacerbate conditions like asthma and chronic bronchitis.





If you would like to book a consultation with Dr Li, do not hesitate to do so by visiting his Top Doctors profile today.

By Dr Andy Li

Dr Andy Li is an esteemed consultant gastroenterologist based in London, specifically serving the West Sussex region. With a focus on digestive health, his areas of expertise encompass a wide range of gastrointestinal issues, including the management of diarrhoea, constipation, acid reflux, indigestion (dyspepsia), abdominal pain and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Dr Li began his medical studies at Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, where he earned his MBBS degree in 1993. He also obtained a Bachelor of Science from the University of London before undertaking these medical studies. He was awarded FRCP status from the Royal College of Physicians of London in 2009.
Dr Li underwent specialist training in gastroenterology as part of the South East Thames Regional Rotation. During this period, he gained valuable experience at renowned teaching hospitals in London, including Guys and St Thomas' Hospitals and Kings College Hospital.
His contributions to the medical community extend beyond clinical practice. He is the founder and clinical lead for inflammatory bowel disease services at the Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Additionally, he serves as a member of the Specialist Training Committee for Gastroenterology within the Kent, Surrey, and Sussex Deanery. His dedication to teaching and mentoring is evident through his involvement in the training of junior doctors, medical students, and nurses at Worthing Hospital.

Additionally, he is devoted to medical research and still recruits to multiple research studies during his NHS practice. His research publications have been widely publisehed across peer-reviewed journals.

Furthermore, Dr Li is an active member of multiple medical organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians (London), the British Society of Gastroenterology and the European Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. 

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