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Published on February 28, 2012

Heartburn vs. GERD: What’s The Difference?

How often do you indulge in certain types of food knowing that you are going to experience that fiery sensation and discomfort later on? Even though you know what’s in store for the coming hours, you still can’t help but put that extra dash of crushed red pepper flakes on top of a greasy slice of pizza. The minute that awful burning feeling takes over is the minute heartburn has made its way into your system. Heartburn is the result of stomach acid irritating the esophagus. However, if you have ever experienced pain along with the feeling that your throat was on fire, you could have GERD.

Heartburn, a common digestive condition, is one of the symptoms of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). The National Institutes of Health states that heartburn is a painful burning feeling in the chest or throat which is brought on when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus, the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. Frequent heartburn is very common, and discomfort can be treated with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medication. GERD, a chronic digestive disease, occurs when a muscle at the end of the esophagus does not close correctly. This allows stomach contents to leak back, or reflux, into the esophagus and cause irritation. Someone with GERD may experience a burning in the chest or throat (heartburn) and taste stomach fluid in the back of the mouth (acid indigestion). If you experience any of these symptoms more than twice a week you may have GERD.

Unfortunately, people with GERD cannot just make a few lifestyle changes or a quick run to the store for over-the-counter medicine to cure their symptoms. These remedies will only temporarily make a difference. People with GERD require much stronger medication and sometimes even surgery to reduce or eliminate symptoms.

Each person reacts differently to certain foods. The following food and beverages can trigger heartburn:

  • Alcohol
  • Black pepper
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Fatty food
  • Fried food
  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Onions
  • Orange juice
  • Peppermint
  • Soft drinks
  • Tomato sauce
  • Vinegar

Along with staying clear of specific food and beverages, there are other risk factors that can increase the likelihood of GERD:

  • Obesity
  • Hiatal hernia
  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Dry mouth
  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Delayed stomach emptying
  • Connective tissue disorders, such as scleroderma
  • Zollinger-Ellison syndrome

To gain a better understanding of whether you are experiencing heartburn or GERD, The National Institutes of Health has provided a list of symptoms for both:

Heartburn:

  • A burning pain in the chest that usually occurs after eating and may occur at night
  • Pain that worsens when lying down or bending over

GERD:

  • A burning sensation in your chest (heartburn), sometimes spreading to the throat, along with a sour taste in your mouth
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Dry cough
  • Hoarseness or sore throat
  • Regurgitation
  • Heartburn, which is more frequent or worse at night
  • Sensation of a lump in the throat
  • Nausea
  • Belching
  • Wheezing

Anyone, including infants and children can have GERD. In some cases, medication or surgery may be required. Thankfully, people can improve their symptoms by

  • Avoiding alcohol and spicy, fatty acidic foods that trigger heartburn
  • Lose weight if needed
  • Eat small, frequent meals
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes
  • Not eating close to bedtime

If you experience heartburn but notice that it is occurring more frequently than usual and is interfering with your normal daily routine, you may be on the path to GERD. Please notify your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of GERD.

For more information on GERD and heartburn, visit http://www.crozerkeystone.org/services/gastroenterology-digestive/, call the Crozer-Keystone Health System Gastroenterology Appointment Center Line at 1-877-CKHS-GI1 (1-877-254-7441) to request an appointment with a CKHS board-certified gastroenterologists, or to make an appointment for a colonoscopy or endoscopy procedure you may also fill out a secure online appointment form.

Reviewed by Immanuel Ho, M.D., chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. Dr. Ho has an office location in Upland and can be reached at (610) 619-7475 for an appointment.

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