Heartburn, Acid reflux and GERD are considered as similar conditions and these words are generally used synonymously. But this is not the case. Heartburn is not a condition rather it is the symptoms which may be due to acid reflux and GERD. Acid reflux is a moderate and acute condition which can be managed by lifestyle changes while GERD is a severe, progressive and complex condition which required medications to get managed.
Acid is present in the stomach. It helps in the digestion of food as certain enzymes get activated in the presence of acid. It also helps in killing the pathogens that get into the digestive tract through food. The stomach is protected for acid by the mucous membrane which forms a layer on the inner wall of the stomach. However, such protective covering is not present on the esophagus. When, due to any reason, if the acid gets in contact with the esophagus, it causes a burning sensation on the esophagus. This results in the condition called heartburn. It is to be noted that heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. As the burning sensation is felt in the esophagus, which is located in the area similar to heart, the condition is commonly known as heartburn.
Heartburn is actually a symptom, which can be due to another disease. But when this symptom occurs, it brings with a variety of other symptoms along with patient discomfort. The other symptoms associated with heartburn include chest congestion, chest pain, sour taste at the back of the throat and burning sensation in the throat.
The prevention of heartburn is required as chronic heartburn may lead to other chronic diseases such as Gastroesophageal reflux disease, Barrett’s esophagus, and esophageal cancer.
There are various methods adopted for managing the heartburn. These are:
- Reduced intake of carbonated water.
- Limited intake of spicy food
- Avoid smoking
- Maintaining obesity
- Symptomatic relief through antacids
Acid reflux is the condition characterized by the backward movement of acid from the stomach to the esophagus. At the preliminary stage, acid reflux may or may not lead to heartburn, but generally, acid reflux is characterized by heartburn along with other symptoms.
There is a circular muscle present at the junction of esophagus and stomach. This muscle is known as a lower esophageal sphincter. The function of this muscle is to prevent the backward flow of food and other ingredients from the stomach to the esophagus. The sphincter muscle, due to any reason, when unable to adequately perform its function, there is a backward movement of acid leading to acid reflux.
The symptoms of acid reflux are:
- Difficulty breathing or chest congestion
- Swallowing problems
- Pain while swallowing
- Sour taste at the back of the throat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bad breath
The lower esophageal sphincter muscle becomes compromised in the patients who are obese, pregnant or overweight. Due to this, the incidence of acid reflux is high in such patients.
Following are the causes of acid reflux:
- Eating too much spicy food
- Uncontrolled consumption of alcohol
- Too heavy meal in one go
- Consuming highly acidic drinks and carbonated water
- Directly going to bed after taking dinner
- Fried foods and food containing high quantity of fat
- Medications such as asthma medications, antihistamines, antidepressants and antihypertensives
Acid reflux is a cute condition in its mild to moderate form and can be managed through the following measures:
- Avoid caffeinated and carbonated drinks.
- Eat in small meals.
- Take a walk after eating dinner.
- Avoid fried, spicy and fatty food.
GERD or Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic disease characterized by the presence of acid reflux. Acid reflux is also known as gastroesophageal reflux. Following are the symptoms of GERD:
- Chronic heartburn
- Swallowing difficulty
- Chest pain
- Sour taste in mouth and at the back of the throat
- Chest congestion and difficulty breathing
- Persistent nausea and vomiting
The symptoms of GERD are more pronounced during the night when the person lie down. Sometimes, severe cases of GERD results in the injury of the esophagus. These conditions are reflux esophagitis wherein there is an inflammation of the esophageal tissue near the stomach and esophageal juncture, esophageal strictures which is the progressive narrowing of the esophagus due to constant inflammation, Barrett’s esophagus in which there is a change in the type of esophageal epithelial cells and esophageal cancer.
GERD is a chronic disease with high severity in many cases. Various factors increase the risk of the development of this disease. These are:
- Zollinger Ellison syndrome
- High level of calcium in the blood
- Hiatal Hernia
- Obesity or overweight
- Glenard syndrome
Difference between heartburn, acid reflux and GERD
Heartburn, acid reflux and GERD are sometimes used synonymously and many people thinks that these are similar conditions. However, this is not the case. All three conditions have different meanings and the treatment strategy adopted is also different for acid reflux and GERD.
Heartburn is not a disease, rather it is a symptom which occurs when the acid irritates the wall of the esophagus. As the esophageal wall is not able to withstand the acidic attack, there is a burning sensation in the chest area. This condition is known as heartburn. Heartburn is a common symptom in both acid reflux and GERD.
Acid reflux is the condition which is characterized by the failure of the lower esophageal sphincter muscles at the juncture of esophagus and stomach. Acid reflux disease has mild to moderate symptoms such as mild heartburn, sour taste in the mouth, bad breath and mild pain while swallowing. Acid reflux can be managed by making certain changes in the lifestyle such as avoiding smoking, and limited consumption of fried and spicy foods.
GERD can be considered as a severe form of acid reflux. It is developed when acute acid reflux is allowed to progress. GERD is a chronic condition, and this may lead to serious complications such as Barrett’s esophagus or cancer. Further, unlike acid reflux, GERD cannot be managed by only making changes in the lifestyle and certain medications are required to relieve the symptoms. The symptoms of GERD are more severe than acid reflux and due to constant inflammation, the patient feels severe pain while swallowing.