Are Heartburn and GERD the Same Thing?

March 27, 2024

From Cajun to BBQ, to Mexican, you love trying it all! You’ve been working your way through a list of local restaurants, marking your favorites, and finding hidden gems along the way. But the last few weekends of your hunt have taken a turn. Your love of spice remains, but it suddenly seems as if spice no longer loves you. Shortly after eating, you’ve been experiencing an uncomfortable burning sensation creeping up from your stomach and up to your throat and you aren’t liking it one bit. Chances are you are suffering from heartburn.

Heartburn tends to come and go but it is important to distinguish between heartburn and its more chronic counterpart, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) for effective management and long-term health. Let’s explore what you need to know—how these conditions are similar and what separates them.

What is Heartburn?

Heartburn, also known as gastroesophageal reflux (GER), occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a band of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus, fails to close properly or stay closed as stomach pressure builds. When that occurs, stomach acid and other contents flow backward into the esophagus, causing irritation. Unlike the stomach, lined with protective mucous, the esophagus lacks this defense, leading to the characteristic burning sensation. The burning can radiate up to the chest area leading to its popular name, heartburn.

Certain medications and supplements, including antibiotics, pain relievers, and antidepressants, can exacerbate heartburn by irritating the esophagus. However, the key distinction between heartburn and GERD lies in the frequency of symptoms.

What is GERD?

While heartburn may be an occasional inconvenience, GERD represents a more persistent and serious condition. Individuals with GERD experience symptoms more than twice a week, indicating chronicity.

GERD symptoms may include:

  • Repeated heartburn, especially after meals or when lying down
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Bloating
  • Upper abdominal or chest pain
  • Nausea
  • A sensation of pressure in the esophagus or a lump in the throat
  • Persistent throat clearing or burping
  • Sore throat, hoarseness, or laryngitis
  • Regurgitation of food and stomach acid into the esophagus

Nighttime reflux, a common feature of GERD, can lead to a chronic dry cough, worsened asthma symptoms, laryngitis, and enamel damage to teeth.

Managing Heartburn and GERD

Dealing with reflux-related discomfort can be challenging, but certain dietary and lifestyle modifications can help alleviate symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Dietary adjustments

Certain foods and beverages can trigger or worsen heartburn and GERD symptoms. Avoiding or minimizing intake of alcohol, spicy foods, caffeine, carbonated drinks, citrus fruits, and fatty or fried foods can help reduce discomfort. Eating smaller, more frequent meals and avoiding lying down immediately after eating can also be beneficial.

Lifestyle modifications

In addition to dietary changes, adopting certain lifestyle habits can aid in managing reflux. Losing excess weight, wearing loose-fitting clothing to avoid pressure on the stomach, and reducing stress through exercise, meditation, or other relaxation techniques can alleviate symptoms. Quitting smoking is also crucial, as tobacco products weaken the LES, exacerbating reflux.

Elevate Your Head

Sleeping with the head raised about six inches can prevent your stomach contents from flowing back into the esophagus during the night. You can achieve this by using a wedge-shaped pillow under the mattress or placing blocks under the legs at the head of the bed.

Over-the-counter medications

For mild to moderate symptoms, over-the-counter antacids, H2 blockers, or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) may provide relief by neutralizing stomach acid or reducing its production. However, it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional before long-term use.

When to Seek Medical Attention

While self-care strategies can often manage mild cases of heartburn or GERD, seeking medical evaluation is crucial, especially if symptoms persist or worsen. Untreated GERD can lead to complications such as esophageal inflammation, ulcers, strictures, or even precancerous changes in the esophageal lining (Barrett’s esophagus). Diagnostic procedures, such as upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, may be necessary to assess the extent of damage and guide treatment.

While heartburn and GERD share similar symptoms, their frequency and severity distinguish them as distinct conditions. By making dietary and lifestyle modifications, seeking medical advice when needed, and adhering to prescribed treatments, individuals can effectively manage reflux symptoms and safeguard their long-term esophageal health.

Don’t let heartburn or GERD dictate your quality of life—take control of your health, prioritize your well-being, and visit AFC Urgent Care Indian Trail today.

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