What’s the Difference? Heartburn vs. Acid Reflux vs. GERD
Heartburn is very common, affecting more than 60 million Americans at least once a month. Acid reflux and GERDare related to heartburn but each means something a little different. While none of the conditions are life-threatening, they can lead to medical complications and more severe diseases if they’re not treated.
Acid Reflux: A Very Common Problem
Acid reflux happens when your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is not working correctly. The LES is a ring of muscles between your stomach and esophagus. During normal digestion, it opens to let food pass into the stomach, and closes to keep stomach acid out of your esophagus. If the LES is weak or relaxes, acid can flow back into the esophagus and irritate it.
Acid reflux can happen for a variety of reasons, including:
- Eating a very large meal or eating too close to bedtime
- Being pregnant or obese
- Eating foods such as chocolate, spicy foods, or tomatoes
- Drinking alcohol, coffee, and carbonated drinks.
- Taking some medications, such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and blood pressure medicine
Heartburn: The Symptom
If you’ve ever had heartburn, you know how unpleasant it can be. You’ll have a burning feeling in your chest and throat. You may also have chest pain that gets worse when you lie down or bend over.
Heartburn is the classic symptom of acid reflux. When acid makes its way into your esophagus, the cells lining it become irritated and cause pain. Not all acid reflux causes heartburn though. If acid reflux is silent, it will cause symptoms like hoarseness, frequent throat clearing, difficulty swallowing and breathing, and coughing.
GERD: The Chronic Condition
Acid reflux and the heartburn it causes are not usually a problem if they happen once in a while. However, if acid reflux becomes chronic, it can progress to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Many of the symptoms of acid reflux and GERD are the same. The difference is in the severity and frequency of the symptoms – and this is what makes GERD dangerous. If it goes untreated for a long time, GERD can cause:
- Narrowing of the esophagus: The constant exposure to acid from the stomach can create scars that narrow the esophagus. This can make it difficult to swallow.
- An ulcer in the esophagus: Acid can create an open sore in the esophagus that may bleed and also make it difficult to swallow.
- Barrett’s esophagus: This condition affects about 10 to 15 percent of GERD sufferers. It changes the cells in the lining of your esophagus, and it may lead to esophageal cancer in some people. If you have this condition, your doctor will recommend regular monitoring through endoscopy exams.
If you’re experiencing heartburn regularly, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. If you experience chest pain – even if you think they’re caused by heartburn – consider it a medical emergency since it may be a sign of a heart attack.