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The symptoms may be similar, but here’s how to tell these conditions apart.

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Many people experience heartburn on occasion. Some people are more prone to it than others or only feel uncomfortable under specific circumstances, such as when eating certain foods or lying down immediately after eating. Symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may be similar, but since it is a chronic condition, it may require a doctor’s care.

“Heartburn is a common problem that people encounter, however, it may or may not be related to acid reflux. I encourage anyone with new or persistent issues with heartburn to see their PCP and/or a gastroenterologist for evaluation as accurate diagnosis can lead to effective management.”

-Robert B. Taylor, MD, Gastroenterology

Here’s how to tell whether the symptoms you’re feeling are due to occasional heartburn or GERD—and when it’s time to see a doctor.

Heartburn

More than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once each month. Sometimes mistaken for a heart attack, heartburn may cause mild to severe pain in the chest. But despite its name, it is not related to the heart. Rather, it is related to the digestive system and is a symptom of acid reflux.

Acid reflux occurs when the muscle that joins your esophagus and stomach is weak or doesn’t tighten properly. When this happens, the acid from your stomach may move backward, into your esophagus. This most commonly occurs after eating spicy or citrus foods, drinking coffee or alcohol, eating a big meal, eating too quickly or laying down too soon after eating.

When stomach acid enters your esophagus, it can cause discomfort in your chest, referred to as heartburn. The pain may feel like burning, pressure or tightness behind the breastbone (near the heart). It may be mild or severe. In addition to heartburn, acid reflux may cause a bitter or sour taste in your mouth, a sore throat or cough, or even regurgitation.

Mild, infrequent heartburn can often be treated with medications like antacids. Some people just ignore it, knowing it will go away soon, or take steps to try to prevent it from happening in the first place. But if you find these symptoms occur often, it may be an indication that you have a more serious gastrointestinal problem such as GERD.

GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic form of acid reflux. Symptoms of GERD include:

      • Frequent heartburn/chest pain
      • Persistent dry cough
      • Bad breath
      • Feeling like there’s a lump in the back of your throat
      • Trouble swallowing
      • Damage to tooth enamel
      • Asthma

Several conditions may contribute to GERD. These include:

      • Being overweight or obese
      • Being pregnant
      • Having a hiatal hernia
      • Smoking
      • Drinking alcohol
      • Taking certain medications, such as antihistamines, calcium channel blockers, pain-relieving medicines, sedatives or antidepressants

GERD is typically diagnosed when acid reflux occurs more than twice a week or causes inflammation in the esophagus. Over time, GERD may cause damage to the lining of the esophagus, which may even increase your risk of esophageal cancer. Certain medications can help reduce stomach acid, but they are not always effective.

If you suspect you have GERD, talk to your doctor about possible treatment options so you can live more comfortably and reduce any risk of long-term damage to your esophagus.

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Date Last Reviewed: September 7, 2021

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

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