Acid reflux and GERD are medical conditions involving the reflux of stomach acid into your esophagus and throat. Heartburn is a symptom of these two conditions.

The terms heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD are often used interchangeably. However, they actually have different meanings:

  • Acid reflux is a common medical condition where stomach acid travels back up your esophagus.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the chronic, more severe form of acid reflux.
  • Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux and GERD.

This article provides overviews of these three medical terms.

The term “heartburn” is misleading. The heart actually has nothing to do with the pain. Heartburn occurs in your digestive system — specifically in your esophagus.

It’s estimated that more than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month.

Symptoms of heartburn

The lining of your esophagus is more delicate than the lining of your stomach. Stomach acid that refluxes — flows back — into your esophagus can cause a burning sensation in your chest.

This pain can feel sharp or like a tightening sensation. Some people may describe heartburn as burning that moves up around the neck and throat or as discomfort that feels like it’s located behind the breastbone.

Heartburn usually occurs after eating. Bending over or lying down can make it feel worse.

Because heartburn involves mild to severe pain in the chest, it can sometimes be mistaken for heart attack pain.

When to seek emergency help

Symptoms of heartburn are often mistaken for a heart attack, but the two conditions are unrelated. You should call 911 or emergency services immediately if your heartburn and chest pain change or get worse and are accompanied by:

  • difficulty breathing
  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • pain in your arm or jaw

Read more about the symptoms of heart attack.

Was this helpful?

Treating heartburn

Not all heartburn requires medical care. Infrequent and mild heartburn can be treated with antacids and lifestyle changes, like:

You should consult a doctor if you have heartburn two or more times a week or if over-the-counter medications don’t relieve your discomfort. If so, heartburn may be a symptom of a more severe problem like acid reflux or GERD.

Read about home remedies for heartburn.

A circular muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) joins your esophagus and stomach. This muscle is in charge of tightening your esophagus after food passes to the stomach.

If this muscle is weak or doesn’t tighten properly, the acid from your stomach can move backward into your esophagus. This is known as acid reflux.

Symptoms of acid reflux

Acid reflux can cause heartburn and other symptoms, such as:

  • cough
  • sore throat
  • a bitter taste in the back of the throat
  • a sour taste in the mouth
  • burning and pressure that can extend up the breastbone

Treating acid reflux

To help stop or reduce acid reflux, try these lifestyle recommendations:

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 to 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

Symptoms of GERD include:

Causes of GERD

Most people experience heartburn and acid reflux off and on. It’s often related to something they ate or habits like lying down immediately after eating.

GERD is a chronic condition where healthcare professionals start to examine the long lasting habits and parts of your anatomy that could cause GERD.

Examples of GERD causes include:

  • having obesity or overweight, which can put extra pressure on the stomach
  • a hiatal hernia, which reduces pressure in the LES
  • smoking
  • consuming alcohol
  • pregnancy
  • taking medications known to weaken the LES, such as:
    • calcium channel blockers
    • pain relievers
    • sedatives
    • antidepressants

Treating GERD

GERD can usually be managed with a combination of lifestyle adjustments, medications, and in some cases, surgery.

Lifestyle adjustments

Lifestyle adjustments include:

  • diet modifications
  • weight loss
  • quitting smoking
  • limiting or avoiding alcoholic beverages
  • sitting upright for at least 3 hours after eating
  • eatting smaller meals more frequently instead of fewer large ones
  • avoiding tight-fitting clothing

Avoiding certain foods that are known to increase the amount of acid in the stomach can help prevent symptoms of acid reflux.

You can also take steps to reduce your weight if necessary. You can do this by eating healthy and exercising whenever possible. If you’re not exercising regularly, a good goal is to aim for 30 minutes of exercise five times a week.

Reach out to a healthcare professional if you need help losing weight, stopping smoking, or limiting alcohol.

Medications

Medications for GERD work to reduce the amount of acid in the stomach. They’re available with and without a prescription for acid reflux and GERD.

Medications include:

  • Antacids: Antacids like Tums and Rolaids are usually first-line treatments for acid reflux. These medications act quickly to reduce the effects of stomach acid, which can relieve symptoms.
  • H2 blockers: H2 blockers are designed to reduce the amount of acid your stomach produces. Sometimes taking these medications with antacids can help. Examples include cimetidine (Tagamet) and famotidine (Pepcid).
  • Proton pump inhibitors: PPIs work longer than H2 blockers to reduce stomach acid. They can also help heal the stomach lining. They are usually taken for a short period.
  • Prokinetics: Prokinetics, like metoclopramide (Reglan), are currently under investigation as to whether they benefit people with GERD. Many new prokinetics have been removed from the market due to serious side effects.

Surgery

If medications don’t reduce your acid reflux symptoms, a doctor may recommend surgery to avoid further damage to the esophagus and stomach.

One surgical approach is known as Nissen fundoplication. This involves wrapping a portion of the stomach around the esophagus to strengthen the LES.

Acid reflux and GERD are medical conditions that occur when stomach acid moves from your stomach back into your esophagus and throat. Both can range from mild to severe. GERD is the chronic, more severe form of acid reflux.

Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux and GERD.

See a healthcare professional if you’re experiencing frequent heartburn or other symptoms of acid reflux or GERD. They can recommend lifestyle and medical treatments that can help.