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Heartburn vs. GERD: An Explainer


FYI: Heartburn has nothing to do with your heart.

photo of woman with heartburn

People often use the terms “heartburn” and “GERD,” or gastroesophageal reflux disease, interchangeably. But while they’re related, they aren’t the same thing. If you’ve ever experienced heartburn after eating, you may have just suffered through it until it went away. But it’s worth paying attention to that painful, burning sensation. We’ll help you understand whether it’s heartburn or GERD—and why the difference matters.

How to tell if it’s heartburn.

You might be surprised to hear that despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart. Rather, it’s your body’s reaction to acid reflux, which happens when acid from your stomach washes back up into the esophagus (the tube between your throat and your stomach).

Heartburn can cause a burning sensation in your throat or your chest—the latter can be mild or severe, and can even be mistaken for a heart attack. It can result from factors like whether you smoke, and eating certain foods, such as fatty, spicy, or acidic foods.

How to know when it’s GERD.

If you’re suffering from heartburn two or more days a week (aka frequent heartburn), along with other symptoms such as bad breath, damage to tooth enamel, respiratory problems, and trouble swallowing, you could have GERD. (It is possible to have GERD without experiencing heartburn as a symptom, though.) When someone has GERD, the muscle at the end of their esophagus relaxes too frequently, which allows stomach acid to regularly enter the esophagus.

It’s important to know that heartburn, whether it is occasional or frequent, can be managed with over-the-counter medications and by avoiding triggers. But if you have GERD, it must be diagnosed by your doctor and treated under medical supervision. Leaving symptoms untreated could lead to more serious issues, such as damage to the esophagus. And a small percentage (10 to 15 percent) of people with GERD develop a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, in which the tissue lining the esophagus changes.

Once you know the difference, what are the next steps?

The next time you feel that heartburn, track your symptoms and what you ate, and if you’re concerned about the frequency of your symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor; they will help you determine if you have frequent heartburn or GERD through testing.

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