Understanding the Difference Between GERD and Heartburn

By Dignity Health Editorial Team September 13, 2019 Posted in: Article

After a large meal, do you ever get a burning sensation in your stomach or chest, or taste acid in your mouth? Many of us would chalk this unpleasant feeling up to acid reflux or heartburn.

But if it happens often, heartburn could be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a digestive tract disorder which affects the muscle separating the lower esophagus from the stomach.

What’s the Difference Between GERD and Heartburn?

Dr. Gurtej Malhi, a gastroenterologist with Dignity Health Medical Group, explains that, “GERD is reflux of the stomach contents into the esophagus. Heartburn, or a burning sensation in the chest, can be one of the symptoms of GERD.”

Frequent and persistent heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, but GERD is also associated with other symptoms, such as:

  • regurgitation
  • chronic cough
  • difficulty swallowing
  • chest pain, especially while lying down

What Causes GERD?

Factors that can contribute to GERD include:

  • smoking
  • excessive caffeine intake
  • being overweight
  • eating late in the evening

One possible cause of GERD is a hiatal hernia, or stomach hernia. “A hiatal hernia happens when part of your stomach moves up through the diaphragm and into the chest” Dr. Malhi explains. “Because the diaphragm  normally acts as an additional barrier to acid reflux, the presence of a hiatal hernia can aggravate GERD symptoms.”

Not everyone with a hiatal hernia experiences GERD, but a hernia can make it easier for the stomach’s contents to flow into the esophagus, making GERD more likely.

Is It Heartburn or Is It GERD?

Occasional heartburn on its own is fairly common. To determine whether your heartburn might actually be a symptom of GERD, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have the symptoms persisted for more than two weeks, even after taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications?
  • Do you find you need to increase your dosage of OTC medications to find relief?
  • Are you constantly bringing up bits of food?
  • Has your heartburn increased in severity?
  • Have you lost your appetite or lost an inexplicable amount of weight?
  • Do you have trouble swallowing?
  • Does your heartburn wake you in the middle of the night?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you should consider scheduling an appointment with your doctor to ensure your heartburn isn’t a sign of GERD or another serious condition.

For example, Dr. Malhi explains, “Heartburn can occasionally present as symptoms of heart disease, especially in women. There are usually associated symptoms of a pressure-like sensation in the chest, pain in arm, jaw or neck, shortness of breath, or nausea or vomiting. If you are not sure, please seek immediate medical attention.”

Managing GERD Symptoms

Lifestyle choices can help GERD symptoms. For example, regular exercise can help alleviate acid reflux, and research studies have shown that losing weight significantly improves GERD symptoms for many people.

If you smoke, quitting could also have a substantial impact on your GERD symptoms. Smoking can lead to affect the lower esophageal sphincter and cause more acid reflux.

According to Dr. Malhi, some people find that certain foods, including chocolate, peppermint, alcohol, spicy foods, and citrus fruits and juices, can trigger GERD. If you experience GERD, avoiding these foods can help prevent or lessen your symptoms.

Changing what time of day you eat – or more specifically, avoiding eating late at night – can also help reduce your symptoms. Dr. Malhi also offers the following advice: “Avoid lying down two-to-three hours after eating and when you get in bed, prop your head up.”

Certain OTC and prescription medications can help you manage GERD. In some cases, when medication does little to control symptoms or when lifestyle changes still do not prevent GERD symptoms from occurring, surgery might be necessary to correct the condition.

If you think you might have GERD, scheduling an appointment with your doctor can help you determine whether your heartburn might indicate something more serious, and help you manage or reduce your symptoms.

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