Sometimes, acid reflux may cause severe symptoms requiring prompt medical attention. Severe symptoms may indicate a serious complication or another health condition.

People may need to seek emergency help for severe symptoms, such as chest pain or gastrointestinal bleeding.

This article examines concerning symptoms of acid reflux, when to seek medical attention, and treatments at home and in the hospital.

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A person should see a doctor as soon as possible for emergency acid reflux symptoms.

These symptoms may relate to acid reflux or be a sign of another condition. These symptoms may include:

Without proper management, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may lead to serious complications that require medical attention.

An esophageal stricture is a narrowing of the esophagus, and people will require prompt diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms of an esophageal stricture include:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • pain when swallowing
  • food getting stuck in the esophagus
  • chest pain
  • unintentional weight loss

Acid reflux can cause chest pain which may be similar to symptoms of a heart attack.

If people have any of the following symptoms, they should go to the emergency room (ER) or call 911:

If people are unsure whether they have heartburn or a heart problem, it is best to seek medical help immediately to help rule out any serious causes.

People will also require immediate medical attention if they have any symptoms of shock. If people have gastrointestinal bleeding, shock may occur with acute bleeding.

Symptoms of shock may include:

A doctor may use an upper endoscopy to check for complications of GERD or to check if any other health conditions other than GERD are causing symptoms.

An upper endoscopy is a procedure that helps doctors examine the esophagus, stomach, and the first section of the small intestine.

A doctor will insert a thin, flexible tube with a camera and light on one end into the esophagus and down into the stomach and small intestine.

People may require an upper endoscopy if they have symptoms with no clear cause, such as:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • bleeding
  • pain
  • persistent heartburn
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • unexplained weight loss

Doctors may also use upper endoscopy to help treat conditions affecting the upper gastrointestinal tract, such as ulcers or removing stuck food.

People may be able to treat acid reflux at home, which may include making lifestyle changes and taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as:

  • losing excess weight and maintaining a moderate weight
  • raising the head during sleep by 6–8 inches by using a foam wedge or extra pillows
  • quitting smoking may help reduce symptoms
  • eating meals at least 3 hours before lying down or sleeping
  • avoiding any food and drink that may trigger acid reflux symptoms
  • taking antacids, to help relieve mild symptoms
  • taking H2 blockers, to help reduce stomach acid
  • taking proton pump inhibitors, to help reduce stomach acid and support healing of the esophageal lining

If people require treatment in a hospital for GERD, treatment may depend on the specific symptoms or complications people are experiencing.

To treat an esophageal stricture, doctors may carry out the following:

  • dilation, using a balloon or mechanical dilator, to widen the esophagus
  • placing a stent into the esophagus to open the stricture
  • surgery to remove any obstruction or cancerous cells

If people have gastrointestinal bleeding, treatments may include:

  • an upper endoscopy, to deliver medication, stop bleeding, or close a damaged blood vessel
  • medications to treat ulcers, if they cause the bleeding
  • minimally invasive surgery to stop bleeding

Some people may require surgery to treat GERD symptoms, such as fundoplication.

During fundoplication, a surgeon will wrap the top part of the stomach around the lower end of the esophagus to prevent the lower esophageal sphincter from opening and causing reflux.

If people have consistent or severe acid reflux, doctors may diagnose people with GERD. GERD is a chronic health condition that people must manage over time.

People may have symptom-free periods and other phases with more severe symptoms.

In some people, the esophagus may become inflamed. However, in about 2 in 3 people with acid reflux, the reflux will not affect the esophagus’ lining.

How long is too long for an acid reflux attack?

According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), a person should see a doctor if frequent heartburn lasts for 3 weeks or longer.

People with acid reflux may experience heartburn and regurgitation of stomach acid or food.

If people think chest pain may be a sign of a heart attack, seek immediate medical attention. A person should also seek help immediately for symptoms of gastrointestinal bleeding or shock.

People will need to see a doctor if they have problems with swallowing, persistent heartburn, nausea, vomiting, or unexplained weight loss.