What Is The Relationship Between GERD And Asthma?

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The surprising relationship between GERD and asthma

If you or a loved one received a diagnosis of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) and then developed asthma, it's likely you never considered if there could be a connection between the two health conditions. Conversely, those managing an asthma condition who went on to develop GERD probably never wondered whether there could be a link between the two conditions. 

Recent theories have proposed, however, that there is a link between the two. Specifically, research has revealed three key indicators that show a relationship between GERD and asthma. These key points indicate that:

  • Patients diagnosed with GERD are more likely to also have asthma than others in the general population.

  • The bodily mechanisms behind acid reflux can also cause a person to have bronchospasm.

  • Aggressive therapies designed to treat GERD have been shown to dramatically improve the symptoms of those who also have asthma.   

The symptoms, causes, and treatment of GERD

Symptoms

If you've ever experienced a bout of heartburn, you may have wondered if it was GERD. While the two do produce similar symptoms, GERD is a chronic condition. People with GERD experience stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus (the tube between the stomach and the mouth) frequently (at least twice a week).

If you have GERD, your symptoms may include chest pain or a painful burning sensation in your chest. This burning sensation occurs because the stomach acid flows back into the throat. You may also have trouble swallowing, or you may feel like you have food caught in your throat.

Many people note their symptoms are much worse at night, making it difficult for GERD sufferers to get sufficient sleep. Over time, the frequent backwash of harsh stomach acid can damage sensitive tissues that line the throat.

Causes

GERD is caused by the abnormal relaxation or weakness of the band of muscle (also known as a sphincter) that surrounds the lower end of the esophagus. When this sphincter malfunctions, it can no longer prevent the stomach acid from flowing back into the throat.

If you have GERD, you've probably found your symptoms are often worse during sleep, as lying in a prone position means your body can't take advantage of gravity to keep your stomach acid where it belongs.

Treatment for GERD

If you receive a diagnosis of GERD, your doctor will most likely start with conservative treatments like lifestyle changes and modifications to your diet. These types of treatments may include recommendations such as:

  • Avoiding large meals (especially those with high amounts of fat)

  • Remaining in an upright position after eating a meal

  • Avoiding caffeine (caffeine increases stomach acid)

  • Losing weight

  • Eliminating smoking

  • Elevating your head and chest area during sleep

If these conservative steps don't resolve your GERD, your doctor may prescribe medications that help lower the amount of acid your stomach produces.

If you're still having difficulty even after making lifestyle changes and taking medication, your doctor may recommend surgery as a treatment for you. The most common surgical treatment for GERD involves repairing or replacing the malfunctioning sphincter valve that's allowing stomach acid to flow back into your throat. 

How are GERD and asthma connected?

As mentioned previously, some people have issues with GERD and then find themselves developing symptoms of asthma. The opposite scenario can also occur, where a person has asthma and finds themselves developing GERD symptoms.

Since both illnesses seem capable of influencing the other, researchers are studying¹ the connection between the two from the initial perspective of both health issues. 

GERD can trigger asthma — why?

To understand why there may be a link between GERD and asthma, you need to know a little basic human anatomy. Within your lungs are nerves that are also connected to nerves in your lower esophagus. Because of this connection, it's not uncommon for a bout of acid reflux to trigger symptoms associated with asthma.

In addition, when you have an attack of GERD, small acidic particles from your stomach can make their way into your airways. This can cause you to have symptoms usually associated with asthma, such as coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.  

What causes the link between asthma and GERD?

When a person experiences an asthma attack, there are pressure changes inside their chest and abdomen. These changes allow the sphincter muscle around the esophagus to relax. Of course, when this sphincter muscle relaxes, it means stomach acid is now allowed to escape into the throat.

In addition, if you have asthma, you may be taking medications such as theophylline or albuterol{4}. These medications are known to relax the sphincter muscle between the stomach and the esophagus, making it more likely for an asthmatic to experience GERD.

Treatment for both asthma and GERD

If you have asthma and GERD, your doctor will probably first address treating your GERD symptoms, as this approach seems to be the most effective in treating both health conditions. They'll most likely prescribe a medication known as a proton pump inhibitor (PPI{5}. PPI medications reduce the amount of stomach acid produced by your stomach. In turn, less stomach acid means less acid reflux and less opportunity for acidic particles to make their way through your airways, thus reducing your chances of having an asthma attack.

If you're taking asthma medications such as albuterol or theophylline, your doctor may prescribe other asthma medications. Avoiding medications that can relax the sphincter muscle of your esophagus may help reduce or even eliminate your GERD. 

The lowdown

If you have asthma or GERD and are beginning to experience symptoms that don't seem related to your condition, you should talk to your doctor about all the symptoms you've been experiencing.

Relaying all your symptoms can help give your physician a comprehensive picture of your overall health, so they can discern whether you may be dealing with more than one health condition. If your doctor determines you have both asthma and GERD, they can develop a customized treatment plan that will effectively address both health conditions.

  1. Insight into the relationship between gastroesophageal reflux disease and asthma (2014)

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