Acid Reflux and GERD: Are They the Same Thing? It’s estimated that approximately 60 million Americans are faced with a bout of heartburn each month. This can be for many reasons—heartburn can strike because of spicy food, smoking, fatty foods, and other reasons. The term heartburn is actually a misleading one, as the pain isn’t coming from the heart but your esophagus. Because the esophageal lining is irritated, it makes it feel like there is burning coming from your heart or chest. Most cases of heartburn are quickly eradicated with over-the-counter medications, such as antacids. But if you find that your heartburn is frequent or persistent, there may be other reasons for your heartburn. The terms “heartburn,” “acid reflux,” and “GERD” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Read on to learn about the difference between the three and when you should consult a physician. 

What Is GERD? Heartburn vs. Acid Reflux vs. GERD

If you think of cases of heartburn at worsening levels, this is the best explanation of the differences between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). While heartburn occurs occasionally, acid reflux is a condition that occurs more frequently and is more bothersome. It may not be easily treated with over-the-counter medications, and it comes with a set of additional symptoms than just a burning sensation in the chest. A patient that has acid reflux may also experience some of these symptoms in addition to burning:

  • Sour taste in the mouth or bitterness in the back of the throat 
  • Burning and pressure along the breastbone (this can sometimes feel like a backache as well)
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Difficulty swallowing

The reason the symptoms and severity differ from heartburn is that acid reflux is an entirely different condition. While heartburn is the result of esophageal irritation, acid reflux is the result of a breakdown of the LES (lower esophageal sphincter) muscle. After you eat, your LES is supposed to tighten and close, not letting any food pass back through. Food should remain in the stomach. However, if an LES is weak or not functioning correctly, it allows food to escape from the stomach back into the esophagus. This acidic, partially digested food and the symptoms it causes, as a result, is acid reflux. 

You may wonder, if acid reflux is different from heartburn, then what exactly is GERD? GERD is a more symptomatic and chronic form of acid reflux. If you experience acid reflux two or more times in a one-week period, this may be a manifestation of GERD. Over time, if the LES keeps letting particles back into the esophagus, the esophageal lining can be permanently damaged. It’s important to be familiar with GERD symptoms so you can relay what you’re experiencing to your healthcare provider. Sometimes GERD can be mistaken for the common cold or even a mild heart attack when it is a severe case of acid reflux instead.

GERD symptoms include:

  • Bad breath
  • Dry cough
  • Worn tooth enamel (from stomach contents entering the mouth)
  • Chest pain
  • Dry cough
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Regurgitation (stomach contents entering the mouth)
  • Asthma

Periodic cases of heartburn and even acid reflux can often be remedied with lifestyle changes, such as eating less spicy food, alcohol moderation, or smoking cessation. However, GERD may not be so easily remedied and may involve a visit to your gastroenterologist for testing. 

How Is GERD Diagnosed?

If you present to your doctor with more than one or two GERD symptoms, they will likely want to run some testing to confirm the GERD diagnosis. There are usually two methods by which doctors will test for GERD: an upper endoscopy or a 24-hour impedance-probe study. During an upper endoscopy, a thin tube is inserted in the mouth, containing a camera on one end to see parts of the stomach and small intestine. From the images, your doctor will be able to confirm or deny a GERD diagnosis. In a 24-hour impedance-probe study, a tube is inserted into your nose to rest in the esophagus. This tube will sense if any stomach contents are making their way into the stomach.

How Do I Prevent GERD?

There are a few factors that contribute to the development of GERD. Like heartburn or acid reflux, you may be able to take preventative measures through lifestyle changes. GERD is more rampant in those who are overweight or obese, so consulting with your doctor to begin a healthier diet and exercise regimen is a good idea if this may be the cause of your GERD. Drinking alcohol (particularly in moderate-to-heavy amounts) also causes GERD, as does smoking tobacco. Certain medications weaken your LES muscle, such as some sedatives, antidepressants, antihistamines, and calcium channel blockers. Make sure you inform your provider of all current medications that you’re taking. 

A hiatal hernia or pregnancy can also cause GERD. Acid reflux and GERD are both very common in pregnant women, because of the overabundance of progesterone, which weakens muscles, including the LES. Talk with your gastroenterologist about medications that are safe during pregnancy to help relieve symptoms. 

How Can I Cure GERD?

Your doctor may prescribe prescription-strength antacids or proton pump inhibitor medications to help arrest the symptoms of GERD. However, just as with regular heartburn and with acid reflux, lifestyle changes help as well. If you suffer from GERD, don’t eat two to three hours before bedtime, don’t lie down immediately after you eat, and aim for four to five small meals a day instead of three larger ones. Quit smoking, avoid spicy foods and drink alcohol in moderation. Other foods to avoid include:

  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint
  • Coffee
  • Foods high in fat 
  • Foods high in sodium
  • Tomatoes and tomato products (like spaghetti sauce)

What Are Complications from GERD? Carolina Digestive is located throughout North Carolina

If GERD goes untreated and undiagnosed, it can cause long-term problems, such as ulcers, scarring, and bleeding. GERD can also cause Barrett’s esophagus, which is a condition where the cells in the esophagus change over time because of damage. Barrett’s esophagus is a marker for esophageal cancer, so it’s best to have potential acid reflux and GERD conditions treated by a physician. 

While you should seek your doctor’s advice if you have symptoms, call your doctor immediately if you experience severe chest pain, trouble breathing, vomiting, or dizziness. This warrants immediate medical attention. 

To learn more about heartburn, acid reflux, or GERD, or if you’d like to be seen by a physician, contact us today. We treat all gastrointestinal issues and disorders with quality, comprehensive care.