60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month. If you are one of these people, you have probably wondered if you have acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or maybe you’re not sure what the difference is or how heartburn fits in. Heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD are related, but they do have some key differences.
Heartburn is the feeling of pain in the chest resulting from stomach acids moving through the esophagus. The pain can range from mild to severe and is described as burning or tightening behind the breastbone or in the neck and throat. Heartburn pain tends to worsen under certain conditions like, lying down, after eating fatty, spicy, or acidic foods, and while pregnant. Being overweight and/or smoking can also exacerbate heartburn.
Whereas heartburn is the symptom, acid reflux is the cause. The condition called acid reflux is when the sphincter muscle connecting the stomach and the esophagus is weakened and allows acid to flow back up into the esophagus. The esophageal lining is not designed to come in contact with stomach acid, that contact is the pain felt during an episode. It is a perpetual cycle because the movement of stomach acid over the sphincter can also weaken it, making the symptoms worse. In addition to heartburn, acid reflux can also cause sore or scratchy throat, a bitter taste in the mouth, or a cough. Acid reflux is not an indication of overall health and is typically not a problem if it remains a mild, occasional annoyance. If you suffer from acid reflux, there may be some things you can try that will lessen the discomfort. Limiting coffee, carbonated beverages, and alcohol can help. Also, eating smaller meals throughout the day and not eating right before going to bed can reduce the likelihood of experiencing symptoms. Antacids are also very helpful for some people in treating the effects of acid reflux. Some medications can cause acid reflux, so if you are experiencing symptoms, it is worth a conversation with your doctor to see if it might be a side effect and what options are available.
If heartburn is the symptom and acid reflux is the cause, what is GERD? The primary difference between GERD and acid reflux is the frequency and intensity of the symptoms. People with GERD also experience heartburn as a result of the condition, but it occurs more often—more than 2 times a week. GERD is basically chronic acid reflux, and if left untreated, can cause severe problems. Over time, the stomach acid can cause ulcers or scarring in the esophagus. The scar tissue and bleeding from ulcers can cause the esophagus to narrow, making it difficult to swallow or breathe. In a small percentage of people, GERD can affect the actual cells in the lining of the esophagus and increase the risk of esophageal cancer. Treatment of GERD is available, and much of it involves doable lifestyle changes like avoiding certain foods, quitting smoking, and staying upright for 3 hours after eating. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight will help significantly with the effects of GERD. There are also medications that can help, so talk to your doctor to find out if one of these might be effective in your situation.
If you are experiencing heartburn or other symptoms related to acid reflux or GERD, especially if these symptoms occur more than once a week, contact Dr. Sameer Islam today. He can help diagnose a potential problem and discuss the treatment options available to make sure you understand the illness and have a plan for moving forward.