What’s the Difference Between Acid Reflux, Heartburn and GERD?

Many of us will experience some digestive discomfort in our lifetime. A common complaint people have is heartburn or acid reflux. People use the terms “heartburn” and “acid reflux” almost interchangeably. You may also hear cases of acid reflux referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). 

So if you’re dealing with any of these issues, you might want to know: what’s the difference between acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD? All three are closely related, but they differ in important ways. In the most basic terms: heartburn is a symptom, acid reflux is a process, and GERD is a chronic condition.

Heartburn

Most people have experienced what is referred to as heartburn. Many people get heartburn after eating certain foods. Heartburn is a feeling of burning in the chest. The burning pain may be mild or severe. It often begins as discomfort behind the breastbone but can move up to the neck and throat. Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux and GERD.

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is a process in which stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that connects the stomach to the throat. Acid reflux is sometimes called gastroesophageal reflux, or GER and is the cause of heartburn. 

Common symptoms of acid reflux include burning pain and pressure starting behind the breastbone (heartburn) that may extend up the neck and throat, sore throat, cough, bitter taste in the throat, and a sour taste in the mouth.

Acid reflux is caused by excess stomach acid flowing back from the stomach into the esophagus. A circular muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) connects the stomach to the esophagus and is supposed to prevent stomach contents from coming back up into the esophagus. If the muscle does not tighten the way it should, then reflux can occur.

GERD

Acid reflux sometimes progresses to a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is the chronic form of acid reflux and is more severe. If you’re still sorting out the difference between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD, here’s something to keep in mind: if someone has GERD, they have acid reflux and experience heartburn.

In addition to the symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux, people with GERD might also have the following symptoms:

  • Damage to tooth enamel due to excess acid
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling like the stomach contents have come back up into the throat
  • Regurgitation of food or liquid
  • Chronic dry cough
  • Asthma
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Bad breath and/or a bad taste in the mouth

GERD symptoms are most often worse at night when the person is lying down, especially if they have recently eaten.

There can be several things that contribute to GERD and its cause varies from person to person. Certain factors can make someone more likely to develop GERD such as being overweight or obese, pregnancy, drinking alcohol, smoking, or taking certain medications. 

If left untreated, GERD can cause complications that can have lasting effects. One such complication is known as Barrett’s esophagus, which occurs when acid changes the cells in the esophagus. This can increase the chance of developing a type of esophageal cancer. Other complications of untreated GERD are bleeding, scarring and ulcers.  These complications are caused by stomach acid damaging the esophageal lining. 

Treatment Options

Heartburn and occasional reflux can generally be treated with simple lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medication for symptom relief. Avoiding certain foods, eating smaller portions, and not laying down until two to three hours have passed since eating can also help prevent it. 

For a chronic condition like GERD, treatment will need to be regular and consistent. If you are diagnosed with GERD, your doctor will counsel you on appropriate treatments. The recommended treatments for GERD generally fall into three categories: medication, lifestyle changes, and surgery.

Make an Appointment

At Birmingham Gastroenterology Associates, we have 14 board-certified gastroenterologists that can diagnose and treat a wide range of disorders and diseases of the digestive tract. So, if you’re still asking yourself “what is the difference between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD?” we can provide you with answers. To make an appointment to have your condition evaluated, diagnosed, or treated, call us at (205) 271-8000.

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