Is it heartburn or GERD?

General Surgery Gastroenterology Primary Care
woman having heartburn at the park

If you’ve never had heartburn, you’re one of the lucky few. In fact, the American College of Gastroenterology estimates that nearly 60 million Americans experience heartburn each month. But how can you know the difference between eating a meal that was a little too spicy and having a chronic condition like gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD?

“Many patients think of heartburn, acid reflux and GERD as all the same thing, but that isn’t the case,” explains William Hackworth, M.D., a gastroenterologist with Riverside Health System. “Understanding and tracking your symptoms – for example, if a certain food triggers heartburn – is a great first step. These details will guide your conversation and help your doctor better treat your condition.”

The difference between heartburn and GERD

GERD is a chronic condition, which means symptoms happen several days a week for several weeks in a row. Heartburn, on the other hand, only occurs occasionally or when you eat certain spicy, dairy or tomato-based foods.

You likely have GERD if your heartburn:

  • Becomes worse or changes patterns (different triggers, more frequency, etc.)
  • Continues after taking over-the-counter medication
  • Interferes with daily activities
  • Lasts more than two weeks
  • Requires higher doses of medicine to manage
  • Wakes you up at night

Other, more subtle signs of GERD include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarse voice or worsening asthma at night after meals, lying down or exercise 
  • Regurgitation (frequent belching or bringing up small amounts of food from the stomach)
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite

What causes heartburn?

Heartburn happens when stomach acid leaves your stomach and travels up to your esophagus (the tube that connects your throat and stomach). Though heartburn can be a little different for everyone, it’s typically described as a sharp, burning or tightening sensation in your chest, breastbone, neck or throat.

Most people feel heartburn after a meal, and it can worsen when you lie down or bend over.

What causes GERD?

GERD symptoms happen when stomach acid that’s typically kept in your stomach — thanks to gravity and a flap of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter —  makes its way back up to your throat. 

Get relief from heartburn and GERD

If you’re battling heartburn or think it could be something more, it’s best to discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Together, you can create a plan to get relief from your symptoms with medication, a healthy diet, regular physical activity and, if needed, weight loss.

“Heartburn and GERD are very treatable,” explains Dr. Hackworth. “Your doctor can help identify what’s causing your heartburn and come up with an approach that’s right for you.”

Need a doctor? Find a gastroenterology provider near you.

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