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What are the Differences Between GERD, Heartburn and Acid Reflux?

While the medical terms GERD, heartburn and acid reflux are often used interchangeably, they are different ailments that are related to each other. Acid reflux is a common condition that affects approximately 20 percent of people in the United States. Frequent and severe acid reflux can be an indication of GERD, which can cause serious health complications if left untreated.

Heartburn, on the other hand, is a symptom of both acid reflux and GERD. The sensation causes an uncomfortable burning pain in the chest, typically in result of eating certain foods.

What Causes GERD, Heartburn and Acid Reflux?

Acid reflux and GERD both occur when stomach acid travels back up into the esophagus. The acidic contents in your stomach go through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which causes the sensation of heartburn. Typically, the diaphragm and LES keeps stomach acids from rising from the stomach. When this muscle is weak or loose, it can cause acid reflux, and potentially GERD.

These conditions and their symptoms can be triggered by multiple factors. Overeating or laying down after eating is often problematic. Some other risk factors include:

  • Eating large portions of food at once
  • Consuming acidic, fatty or spicy foods
  • Drinking alcohol, coffee or tea
  • Certain medications
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy

What are the Symptoms of GERD?

GERD patients often report a burning sensation in their chest also with belching, regurgitation and a sour taste.

Unfortunately GERD can aggravate asthma symptoms. When the stomach acid reaches the esophagus, it can irritate the airways and cause a sore throat or difficulty swallowing.

How is GERD Diagnosed?

Frequent acid reflux and heartburn may be an indicator of GERD, which is a serious condition and requires medical attention for treatment. While there are some temporary treatments to help with occasional acid reflux, you should consult a physician when the acid reflux occurs frequently throughout the day or week.

In most cases GERD can be diagnosed by a physician based on the patient’s symptoms. Sometimes the doctor requests that their patient jots down their food intake and symptoms in a food diary. A food diary is useful for the doctor to analyze the foods you consume and compare it against your symptoms to see if there’s a relationship between the two. If the diagnosis is still unclear, the doctor can suggest the following tests to diagnose GERD:

  • Upper Gastrointestinal Endoscopy
  • X-Ray using Barium
  • Manometry, or Esophageal Motility Testing
  • 24-Hour Ambulatory Acid Probe Test

Unfortunately, you cannot diagnose GERD with a simple blood test.

How is GERD Treated?

There are typically two parts to GERD: lifestyle changes and medication. If you are experiencing any issues with heartburn or acid reflux (leading to GERD), here are a couple changes you can make to immediately to help alleviate your symptoms after eating:

  • Don’t lie down after eating.
  • Don’t eat three hours before sleeping.
  • Tilt the head of your bed by putting blocks under the legs. Gravity helps prevent reflux.
  • Eat smaller meals throughout the day, rather than larger meals less frequently.
  • Avoid trigger foods (see below).
  • Avoid drinking alcohol before bed.
  • Don’t drink alcohol without eating first.
  • Stop smoking, as it weakens the esophageal sphincter.
  • Lose excess weight.

Some trigger foods that can promote acid reflux include spicy, fatty, greasy or mint-flavored foods, citrus, chocolate, caffeine and tomatoes. A food diary can help you know if these foods are a problem for you.

The second part of treatment, if necessary, includes taking over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription drugs. Antacids are the most common form of OTC treatment for acid reflux which neutralizes acid in the stomach. This form of medication typically relieves symptoms immediately, but temporarily. Antacids should not become a regular part of your diet, and if symptoms persist for over two weeks, a medical professional should be consulted. They may prescribe a stronger drug or test you for GERD. If diagnosed with GERD, acid blockers may be prescribed. Proton pump inhibitors are available over the counter and by prescription. These reduce stomach acid production.