What’s the Difference Between Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and GERD?
Acid reflux, heartburn, GERD. Do you sometimes hear those terms used interchangeably, or think you know what they mean but not sure how they’re different? You’re not alone. They are commonly confused because they’re related, but they are not the same.
What’s the difference?
Heartburn might be the first thing you think of when you hear acid reflux or GERD. That’s because it is a primary symptom of both. However, getting heartburn doesn’t automatically mean you have acid reflux or GERD.
Heartburn is a symptom, not a disease. It describes the burning feeling under your breastbone that anyone can get occasionally, especially after large, fatty, or spicy meals. It can come with a sour taste in your mouth and the feeling of food coming up from your stomach. It is caused by stomach acid leaking up into your esophagus.
On its own, occasional heartburn is nothing to be worried about, although it’s uncomfortable at the time. Lots of people get heartburn sometimes.
Acid reflux is what causes heartburn. It’s when stomach contents, including stomach acid, leak up into your esophagus. It’s also called gastroesophageal reflux (GER). Stomach contents can leak up into the esophagus when the valve that normally keeps the contents in the stomach doesn’t stay closed.
The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) normally keeps contents safely in your stomach. But it can allow leaks to occur if your stomach is overly full or if you’ve eaten certain foods that relax the LES, causing it to open.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is an acid reflux disease that must be diagnosed by a doctor. When mild acid reflux happens more than two times per week or severe reflux happens weekly, you might have (GERD). This is a chronic condition that can cause serious symptoms.
The acid from this frequent reflux can lead to difficulty swallowing, a chronic cough, tooth damage from acid, and other symptoms. If it’s not controlled, the damage to the esophagus can lead to ulcers, scarring, and even esophageal cancer.
GERD can often be successfully treated with medication or lifestyle changes, but surgery is sometimes necessary.
What can you do if you have heartburn?
If you experience occasional heartburn from acid reflux, try these:
- Don’t lay down after eating for two to three hours
- Raise the head of your bed so gravity helps keep your stomach contents in your stomach
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals instead of two to three large meals
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid tight clothing that can put pressure on your stomach
- Keep a food diary to pinpoint trigger foods to avoid
- Lose extra weight
- Use over the counter antacids if needed*
If you’re taking antacids more than two times per week, or your symptoms are getting worse, you may have GERD. Your doctor can talk to you about your history and symptoms, rule out other conditions, and determine if you have acid reflux or GERD.
Together you can come up with a plan to treat your symptoms and avoid the complications that can come from untreated GERD.