Heartburn vs. GERD: What’s the Difference?

One involves the other, but they’re not the same thing.

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Heartburn is an unpleasant but common experience. If you've eaten a large and spicy meal late at night, you might be all too familiar with this feeling of indigestion. When heartburn rears its ugly head often, you might wonder if it's something more, such as GERD.

GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease. Given how common heartburn is, it can be hard to know if you're experiencing something normal, or if it's time to see a doctor.

What is acid reflux and heartburn?

Acid reflux occurs when the stomach acid that’s naturally in your stomach backs up into the esophagus. “We all have acid in our stomach and this is what helps us digest our food,” says Roshini Raj, MD, a Gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health and co-founder of healthy living brand Tula. “Your stomach is well equipped to tolerate that acidic environment. Our esophagus on the other hand, is not meant to be exposed to acid.”

This misplacement of acid into the esophagus can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Stomach pain
  • Difficulty swallowing, or food getting stuck
  • Painful swallowing
  • Sore throat or hoarseness
  • Regurgitation of foods/fluids; taste of acid in the throat
  • Sense of a lump in the throat

The most common symptom of acid reflux, the one that affects more than 10 million adults in the U.S. on a daily basis, is heartburn.

Heartburn is a burning feeling you get in the chest just below or behind the breast bone. “That burning sensation is usually due to acid coming up in the stomach into the esophagus causing irritation,” says Dr. Raj. The feeling of heartburn sometimes spreads to the throat and can give off an acid taste.

When does heartburn become GERD?

“Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is when you frequently have acid coming up into the stomach into your esophagus,” says Dr. Raj.

People who experience heartburn or other acid reflux symptoms at least two to three times a week may have GERD. If you get acid reflux enough, it can cause bothersome symptoms or injury to the esophagus.

Symptoms of GERD include:

  • Nausea
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Frequent throat clearing
  • Bad breath
  • Dry scratchy throat
  • Changes in your voice

Learn more about GERD here.

What can you do about acid reflux?

Frequent acid reflux can really affect a person’s quality of life. “They’re not able to go out and eat the things they want. They’re not able to sleep because they’re experiencing pain and discomfort, and they may be very worried because now they’re having trouble swallowing or having severe pain,” says Dr. Raj. “You don’t want to just accept this as part of your life, you want to make sure that you’re getting the correct diagnosis, evaluation, and the correct treatment.”

If you experience heartburn (or other symptoms like nausea and trouble swallowing) more than twice a week, talk to your doctor about acid reflux. Not only can your doctor help you treat GERD symptoms, but you may also figure out the underlying source of the problem to nix heartburn for good.