What’s the Difference between Heartburn, GERD & Acid Reflux?

You’ve probably heard the terms heartburn, GERD and acid reflux used interchangeably, but do they really have the same meaning? Despite being closely related, these three terms have some important differences, and understanding them could help you gain better insight into your digestive issues.

Acid reflux is a term that describes the occurrence of stomach acid rising up into the esophagus. The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is a ring of muscle located at the base of the esophagus where it meets the stomach. This muscle acts like a valve, opening to allow food and liquids to enter the stomach and then closing tightly to prevent the contents of the stomach from rising back into the esophagus. When the LES is weak or does not close properly due to structural reasons, stomach acid and undigested food can rise back into the esophagus, resulting in acid reflux.

Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux. It is a burning sensation that occurs in the chest area – usually right behind the breastbone – and it can be accompanied by chest pain or tightness. Heartburn is very common, affecting more than 60 million Americans at least once a month. Occasional heartburn is generally no cause for concern and can typically be treated with over-the-counter medications and lifestyle changes. However, patients who frequently experience heartburn should see a doctor, as this could be a sign of a more serious condition such as GERD.

GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease, a digestive condition characterized by chronic acid reflux. The most common symptom of GERD is frequent heartburn, but some patients with GERD may not experience heartburn at all. Other symptoms of GERD include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sensation of a lump in the throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Food regurgitation
  • A sour or bitter taste in the mouth

GERD is a chronic condition that requires treatment to control the presence of acid in the esophagus. Long-term acid exposure to the esophagus can produce several complications including ulcers, esophageal strictures, Barrett’s esophagus, and esophageal cancer (Source: Healthline).

Knowing the difference between acid reflux, heartburn and GERD can help you understand your symptoms and the best way to treat them. (And you’ll sound smarter in front of your friends, too!) But if you still have concerns or unanswered questions about your digestive symptoms, your next step should be a visit with your doctor or gastroenterologist. Your condition may not be serious, but when it comes to good health, you can never be too careful.

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