HOLLAND, Pa. (WPVI) -- Nearly everyone gets heartburn now and then.
When it becomes a regular occurrence, it's time to get it checked out.
A Bucks County woman shares her experience, and urges everyone not to delay getting checked.
For years, Alice Gatto kept heartburn in check with over-the-counter products.
But eventually, that burning sensation became a daily constant.
"I didn't matter what I ate. Just, they tell you to stay away from spicy things. It did not matter at all," notes Alice.
Dr. Joseph Triggs, a gastroenterologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center says heartburn is a symptom of GERD, or reflux, when contents of the stomach back up into the esophagus.
"Some studies have said up to 50% of the U-S population, at some point in, during a month, might have reflux," says Dr. Triggs.
When reflux is chronic and untreated.
"The lining of the esophagus, or the cells that line it, change," says Dr. Triggs, who specializes in interventional endoscopy.
Gatto learned she had this condition, called Barrett's esophagus, about three years ago.
"I had anemia. They were trying to find out if I was bleeding and where," Alice recalls.
An endoscopy showed Gatto slowly lost blood from the irritated esophagus.
Barrett's esophagus can raise the risk of esophageal cancer, but Dr. Triggs say it's not the only factor.
"People that have hiatal hernia, so that's actually part of their stomach that's come up into their chest, are more prone," says Dr. Triggs.
"People who smoke are at higher risk," he adds.
Older age is another factor.
Controlling the reflux is the first step in treatment.
Dealing with Barrett's esophagus itself depends on the changes in the cells.
Often, monitoring it with periodic endoscopies is enough.
Those like Gatto with cell changes may need ablation - techniques to remove abnormal cells and stimulate healthy ones.
"Getting rid of the Barrett's can reduce their risk of progressing to esophageal cancer," notes Dr. Triggs.
Because Gatto lost her brother-in-law to esophageal cancer, she didn't hesitate to act on her reflux.
"Life is short enough. Don't make it shorter by not getting it checked out," Gatto advises.
Dr. Triggs reassures patients that esophageal cancer is rare, and most people with Barrett's esophagus won't develop it, but don't delay reflux treatment, because there's no way to predict who will or won't go on to cancer.
Heartburn isn't the only sign of GERD or reflux, and not everyone with GERD develops it.
A persistent cough, hoarseness, excessive throat-clearing, or asthma-like symptoms can be other signs, too.