Heartburn, Acid Reflux and GERD: What Are the Differences?

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Though unpleasant, the occasional heartburn that can ruin your meals every now and then is common and usually not cause for concern. When it occurs more frequently, however, heartburn indicates a more serious issue, such as acid reflux disease and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Heartburn, acid reflux and GERD are related, but with some important differences. Acid reflux is what causes the burning feeling of heartburn. In most cases, heartburn is temporary and triggered by certain foods. Acid reflux disease causes chronic heartburn. GERD is a more severe, long-lasting form of acid reflux, and heartburn is just one of the symptoms.

Another key difference is that GERD does not get better on its own. Left untreated, GERD can cause a variety of complications including Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that increases the risk of developing esophageal cancer.

Why do they call it “heartburn”?

Heartburn presents itself as a pain in your chest – and is sometimes mistaken for a heart attack—but it has nothing to do with the heart. The discomfort you feel comes from your esophagus.

Heartburn occurs when the acid in your esophagus causes a burning or tightening sensation in your chest. For some people, this sensation moves into the neck, or soreness behind the breastbone.

It’s a common ailment – about 20 percent of Americans experience it at least once a month – but it’s manageable by taking a few steps, including:

  • Eating fewer fatty foods.
  • Staying away from spicy or acidic foods.
  • Losing weight.
  • If you smoke, give it up.

Infrequent heartburn can be treated with antacids, but if you find yourself taking antacids multiple times a week, check with your doctor at Triborough GI. Your heartburn may be a symptom of a more serious condition such as GERD or acid reflux.

How do I know if I have acid reflux?

Inside your digestive system, you’ll find the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, a muscle that connects your stomach and your esophagus. Its job is to tighten the esophagus when food passes into your stomach. But if the LES is weak – or fails to tighten properly – stomach acid can move into your esophagus. This is where acid reflux gets its name.

Acid reflux can cause heartburn – as we noted earlier, heartburn is often a symptom of acid reflux – as well as other symptoms: Coughing, sore throat, a bitter taste in the throat, a sour taste in the mouth, and burning or pressure in the chest.

Risk factors for acid reflux include:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Pregnancy
  • Snacking close to bedtime
  • Laying down right after a heavy meal.
  • Drinking alcohol, caffeinated drinks, or soda, and eating foods such as chocolate, mint, garlic, onions, tomatoes, citrus fruits and anything that is fatty or spicy
  • Taking aspirin, ibuprofen, and some muscle relaxants and blood pressure medications

What is GERD?

GERD is the chronic form of acid reflux. It’s diagnosed when acid reflux occurs more than twice a week or causes inflammation in the esophagus. Long-term damage of the esophagus can lead to cancer. Pain from GERD may or may not be relieved with antacids or other over-the-counter (OTC) medication.

Symptoms of GERD


  • Bad breath
  • Damage to tooth enamel due to excess acid
  • Heartburn
  • Feeling like stomach contents have come back up to the throat or mouth, or regurgitation
  • Chest pain
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Asthma
  • Trouble swallowing

Most people can experience heartburn and acid reflux intermittently related to something they ate or habits like lying down immediately after eating. However, GERD is a chronic condition where doctors start to examine long-lasting habits and parts of a person’s anatomy that could cause GERD. Examples of the causes of GERD include:

  • Being overweight or obese, which puts extra pressure on the stomach
  • Hiatal hernia, which reduces pressure in the LES
  • Smoking
  • Consuming alcohol
  • Pregnancy
  • Taking medicines known to weaken the LES, such as antihistamines, calcium channel blockers, pain-relieving medicines, sedatives, and antidepressants

Symptoms of GERD may disrupt your daily life. Fortunately, they can usually be controlled with treatment. Options include:

  • Diet modification
  • Weight loss
  • Smoking cessation
  • Alcohol cessation

Medications for GERD work to reduce the amount of acid in the stomach. They may not be effective for everyone. Some people need surgery to help reinforce the LES.

Prevention of these conditions

Prevention of heartburn, acid reflux, GERD, as well as many other digestive issues, include lifestyle changes to improve overall digestive health: losing weight, dietary changes, eating smaller meals, and avoiding fatty foods, alcohol and cigarettes.

Dietary supplements can also improve digestive health. Bioactive peptides found in Proper Nutrition’s products such as Seacure® and Seavive® work directly in your gastrointestinal tract to reduce the symptoms of digestive disorders and restore gut integrity. These peptides have also shown to be beneficial in wound healing and immune system support.


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