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The Difference Between Heartburn, GERD, and Acid Reflux

You know the feeling — that burning sensation in your chest. Difficulty swallowing. Chest pain. It strikes after you eat pizza or wine, or even ice cream. Is it heartburn? Is it acid reflux? Are you having a heart attack? We get it, it’s confusing. But don't worry, we’re here to help.

What Is Heartburn?

Quick answer: The name for the burning sensation you feel during acid reflux or GERD — it’s a symptom of acid reflux, not a separate condition.

Slightly longer answer: There’s a common misconception that heartburn is a condition separate from acid reflux or GERD. It’s simply not true — heartburn is the most common symptom of acid reflux. Even though it has nothing to do with your heart, that burning sensation is called heartburn because you feel it behind your breastplate (and in severe cases, even between your shoulder blades).

What causes heartburn? There are the usual suspects, like spicy, salty and fatty foods — beer, wings, coffee, and the like. But you might also trigger it with more indulgent, less-happy-hour-esque foods, like ice cream, sushi, cheese, and wine. Heartburn can cause a sour, hot, acidic taste in the back of your mouth, a burning feeling in the throat, and even chest pain.

It's uncomfortable, and it can make you want to stop eating your favorite foods. Luckily, there are ways to manage your symptoms.

What Is Acid Reflux?

Quick answer: The backward flow of stomach acid into your esophagus, which creates a burning sensation (a.k.a. heartburn), among other symptoms.

Slightly longer answer: Here's how the digestive system works — you chew and swallow food, and it moves from the throat into the esophagus, then past the lower esophageal sphincter and into the stomach, where it's digested with the help of acids.

Acid reflux is a condition wherein acids in your stomach escape upward, back into the esophagus. Unlike your stomach, the esophagus is not designed to handle acid. So when acid makes contact with the lining of the esophagus, you might experience the common symptoms of acid reflux, like heartburn. Yes, heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux. Your acid reflux could also be caused by a hiatal hernia, in which part of your stomach bulges into the esophagus. Either way, when stomach acid makes its way into your esophagus, you’ll feel symptoms including but not limited to:

  • asthma and/or shortness of breath
  • difficulty swallowing and/or sore throat
  • dry cough
  • dyspepsia or indigestion (recurring pain or discomfort in the upper part of your abdomen)
  • heartburn in your chest area
  • nausea
  • regurgitation, burping or vomiting
  • sour or bitter taste at the back of your mouth

What Is GERD?

Quick answer: The long-term, chronic acid reflux condition — people with GERD have acid reflux more than twice a week.

Slightly longer answer: If you experience acid reflux more than two times a week, you may have the long-term, persistent gastroesophageal reflux disease, a.k.a. GERD. In addition to confirming your symptoms, your doctor may diagnose GERD in a few ways:

  • barium swallow, which means you’ll swallow barium before an x-ray, so the doctor can visualize what’s happening in your esophagus
  • endoscopy, or inserting a long, lit camera down your esophagus to get a better look
  • pH monitoring, to check the acidity levels in your esophagus
  • esophageal manometry, another tube that’s inserted down your esophagus to check the motor function of the sphincter

You’re probably wondering if GERD is bad for you — check out this article to learn more about how GERD may affect your health, and what you should keep an eye out for.

Over-the-Counter Treatments

There are several ways to treat symptoms and mitigate the effects of acid reflux and frequent heartburn, including over-the-counter medications (OTC) and prescription medications:

  • Over-the-counter antacids, which neutralize stomach acid (you've probably heard of Gaviscon®, Tums®, etc.)
  • H2 blockers, which block histamine so your stomach produces less acid. (For reference, Zantac® and Pepcid AC® are H2 blockers).
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which reduce how much acid your stomach produces. They’re typically slower than an H2 blocker, but more effective. (You might know them by their brand names: Prilosec®, Prevacid®, Nexium®)

Before taking any of these, you should speak to your doctor and learn about potential side effects. Also, note that both H2 Blockers and PPIs can be prescription strength.

Lifestyle Changes That Can Mitigate Your Symptoms

A few lifestyle changes can also make a difference in the frequency and intensity of your acid reflux. Experts recommend avoiding large meals, reducing your intake of fatty and spicy foods, weight loss, quitting smoking, and wearing loose-fitting clothes (pressure on your stomach increases the risk of acid reflux). Acid reflux is more common in obese people and pregnant women — since extra weight in the belly puts added pressure on the stomach. Yep, a few of these suggestions can benefit your life in more ways than one (*cough* smoking *cough*).

Acid reflux tends to be underdiagnosed because people believe heartburn is a condition in itself, rather than a symptom of acid reflux. One in five people experience acid reflux, so it’s actually quite common. So now that you’re fluent in the symptoms and treatment options available, you can figure out which one you actually have and what you need to do next.


The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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