This article was reviewed by Senior Director of Community Engagement and COPD360social Community Manager, Bill Clark, as well as certified staff Respiratory Therapists on January 30, 2020.
Dear COPD Coach,
I have just been diagnosed with COPD. I have suffered with GERD for 25 years and had Nissen wrap surgery (surgery for GERD when other treatments fail) 20 years ago. Surgery helped for awhile, but I still struggled with GERD while experiencing new COPD coughing symptoms with difficulty in breathing. I instinctively lied down on the floor with my head elevated. It seemed to slow the coughing and the sense of mucus dripping in my chest. Is there any validity to this or I’m just hoping?
—COPD and GERD
COPD and GERD (Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disorder) often occur together. Research shows that people with COPD are at far greater risk of developing GERD, and almost half of those with severe COPD also have GERD.
GERD is a digestive disorder in which the valve that keeps stomach contents inside the stomach allows stomach acids to get up into the esophagus. The disease can easily complicate your COPD symptoms. These acids are very irritating to the linings of your lungs. It is thought that GERD develops in people with COPD because they have trapped air in their chest cavities, which may then increase pressure on the abdomen, which leads to gastric reflux. It is also thought that some of the medications used to treat COPD may impair the lower esophageal sphincter which is the valve that keeps acid and food in the stomach.
According to Dr. David Mannino, one sign that the acid reflux of GERD could be affecting your lungs is if you wake up in the middle of the night gagging, especially with a sour taste in your mouth. Heartburn, coughing more frequently, coughing up mucus, and having even more trouble catching your breath all indicate that GERD is likely making your COPD symptoms worse.
While there is no cure for GERD, there are steps you can take to lessen the symptoms which include avoiding spicy foods, alcohol, caffeine, and chocolate. Do not eat right before you go to bed, and keeping the head of your bed slightly elevated. Discuss with your doctor if there are any medications that can also help.
If you are instinctively lying down and keeping your head elevated, you are definitely improving the GERD symptoms, which will also improve your breathing. GERD mostly occurs at night while sleeping, so consider elevating your bed by putting 2X4s under the legs that support the head end of your bed. You can also purchase a inclined pillow (wedge) that will raise the upper part of your body.
The important thing to remember is that there are a number of co-morbidities related to COPD, and GERD is one of them. If your symptoms for GERD get worse, consult with your doctor because it could, in turn, affect your COPD.
–The COPD Coach
Coaches Corner is aimed at providing information for individuals with COPD to take to your doctor, and is not in any way intended to be medical advice. If you would like to submit a question to the Coaches Corner email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear your questions and comments. You can address your emails to The COPD Coach.