Is There a Difference Between Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)?

Is There a Difference Between Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)?

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Have you ever eaten food and experienced an unpleasant feeling of the food coming back into your throat? That uncomfortable, burning, and even painful sensation is what is known as heartburn.

Heartburns are a common occurrence, and a staggering 60 million-plus Americans usually experience heartburns once a month. Even worse, close to 15 million Americans experience heartburns daily.

But before you look for a gastroenterologist near you, you need to know the interlinking between heartburns, acid reflux, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Heartburn Basics

In truth, the term heartburn is quite misleading. The heart is nowhere involved in this sensation. Heartburn does not occur in the cardiovascular system but in the digestive system, in the esophagus to be more specific.

Your stomach lining is quite strong as compared to the lining of your esophagus. Typically when your esophagus comes into contact with the acid, it causes the burning and painful sensation on your chest. The pain can be severe and, at times, mistaken for heart attack pain. It can get worse when you lie down or bend over.

Heartburn is not considered as a condition all by itself, but a symptom of acid reflux.

Acid Reflux 101

Gastroesophageal reflux is another term that is used to describe acid reflux. The lower esophageal sphincter (a circular muscle) joins the stomach and the esophagus and is responsible for keeping the food in your stomach once it passes through the esophagus.

Acid reflux typically occurs when this muscle doesn’t tighten properly or becomes weak, causing the acid in the stomach to move upwards into your esophagus.

Below are some of the common acid reflux symptoms:

  • Sore throat
  • Abdominal discomfort or pain
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • An acidic or warm taste in the mouth
  • Heartburn
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Feel as though food is stuck in the throat
  • Cough
  • Pressure and burning that extends to the breastbone
  • Pain
  • Bad breath

Quick Facts About GERD

When acid reflux progresses, it causes Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). So, what is GERD? It is a chronic form of acid reflux. When you get acid reflux more than twice each week, or it causes inflammation, then you know that you have GERD. If left untreated, long-term damage can cause cancer.

Heartburn is one of the common symptoms associated with GERD, but some patients do not experience it. Other than heartburn and the other acid reflux symptoms, some of the symptoms associated with GERD are:

  • Damage to the enamel because of excess acid
  • Asthma
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Regurgitation
  • Problem swallowing

Common Causes of Acid Reflux and GERD

Your stomach was built to withstand acid, but the esophagus was not. Acid reflux is caused by problems with the circular muscle that connects the stomach and the esophagus. If it relaxes or is weakened, then the acid will move upward into the esophagus. This can happen due to several reasons.

If there is immense pressure on your abdomen, then the muscle can relax or weaken. This is experienced in obese and overweight people or pregnant women.

Our physicians in Germantown, MD, will examine your habits and anatomy to ascertain the particular cause of acid reflux and GERD.

Some of the causes of GERD include:

  • Hiatal hernia
  • Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Taking medication that weakens the lower esophageal sphincter like antihistamines, antidepressants, and pain-relieving drugs.
  • Poor posture
  • Eating large meals
  • Eating certain foods
  • Diabetes
  • Increase in stomach acid
  • Eating right before bedtime
  • Eating too quickly


If GERD is left untreated, then some severe complications can occur, including:

  • Inflammation of the esophagus (esophagitis)
  • Respiratory problems like laryngitis or pneumonia
  • Barrett’s esophagus which causes the cells in the esophagus to change
  • Cancer

Treatment and Prevention

Our physicians in Germantown, MD, will first recommend lifestyle modifications and some medication. If the problem persists, then the next step will be prescription medication and surgery.

Other than that here are some of the medications for acid reflux available:

  • H2 blockers that typically block acid production in the stomach
  • Antacids that neutralize the acid
  • Prokinetics which help the stomach empty much faster
  • Proton pump inhibitors which reduce stomach acid
  • Medication that strengthens the (LES) lower esophageal sphincter

You can avoid or alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux by trying the following:

  • Avoid or stop smoking
  • Reduce alcohol intake
  • Stop wearing tight-fitting clothes
  • Eat small meals
  • Sit upright for three hours after eating
  • Avoid foods that increase stomach acid like spicy foods, caffeinated drinks, chocolate, etc.
  • Reduce weight

If you experience the above symptoms and are persistent, do not hesitate to contact our doctors at Germantown Primary Healthcare, and we will take care of you.

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