Late Tuesday night, Chrissy Teigen tweeted a question many of us have humored before. “Can you die of acid reflux?” she wrote. Though Teigen probably wasn’t being entirely serious, her tweet tapped into something very real: Acid reflux can be annoying, frustrating, and downright painful to deal with. Although occasional acid reflux won’t kill you, it should still be taken seriously. If left untreated, chronic acid reflux can lead to conditions that increase your risk for developing esophageal cancer, which can in fact kill you.
Acid reflux—or gastroesophageal reflux (GER), as it’s technically known—occurs when stomach acid flows back up into your esophagus.
This can cause heartburn, make it hard for you to swallow, or make you feel like you have a lump in your throat. It can also cause you to regurgitate some food or bile. Ever burped up part of a meal you just ate and felt your throat burn? Yeah, that might’ve been acid reflux.
If you’re experiencing acid reflux, your lower esophageal sphincter—a band of muscle at the base of the esophagus—is probably to blame, according to the Mayo Clinic. When you swallow, this sphincter relaxes to let food in. Then, it closes again. But if the sphincter relaxes or weakens when it shouldn’t, stomach acid can flow back up, leading to inflammation and those delicious burning food burps.
It’s common to have acid reflux every now and then, according to The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). But things like smoking, eating large meals, eating late at night, eating fatty or fried foods, drinking alcohol or coffee, and taking certain medications (like aspirin) can increase your risk of experiencing it.
Being pregnant (like Teigen) or obese also increases the chances you’ll have acid reflux because both conditions put pressure on the stomach. That makes it more likely that acid will make its way up into the esophagus.
Acid reflux every now and then isn’t cause for concern, but if it’s becoming a regular thing, you should check in with your doctor.
If you’re dealing with mild episodes of reflux more than twice a week (or moderate-to-severe reflux at least once a week), you might have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—a condition affecting about 20 percent of the population in the U.S., per the NIDDK. People with GERD have a slightly increased risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, according to the American Cancer Society. In addition to causing permanent damage to the esophagus or esophageal ulcers, GERD can lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which also increases your risk for developing esophageal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Thankfully, there are a bunch of things you can do for acid reflux treatment and prevention. For starters, you can try to pinpoint your reflux triggers (e.g. smoking, fatty or fried foods, alcohol, or coffee) and avoid them as much as possible. You can also try to avoid eating meals late at night (lying down after a meal makes it easier for acid to travel upwards). If you need to, you can try over-the-counter medications that neutralize stomach acid (such as Tums), decrease acid production (like Zantac or Pepcid AC) or heal the esophagus (like Prilosec OTC).
That said, if you’re relying on these medications frequently, having more severe heartburn than usual, or having problems swallowing, you should give your doctor a call. They can help you figure out what’s going on and guide you to the best way to treat it.
Correction: This article has been updated to more thoroughly emphasize the link between acid reflux and esophageal cancer. H/t the Salgi Esophageal Cancer Research Foundation for pointing this out.