Digestive Health

How to tell the difference between acid reflux and GERD

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Learn about the difference between acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Find out what the symptoms are and when to get help.


By Suma Magge, MD, Gastroenterology, Nuvance Health


When you think of heartburn you probably think of that burning sensation in your chest. An uncomfortable feeling that is often triggered by something you ate or drank. However, there are two terms often used when describing these problems inside your digestive system; gastroesophageal reflux disease and acid reflux. Although both terms are often used to describe heartburn, one condition is chronic and serious while the other is only temporary and mild. If you have ever felt a burning sensation in your chest after you have eaten something, chances are it may be related to acid reflux.


Think you have heartburn? Learn more about acid reflux and take a heartburn quiz.


What is acid reflux?


Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux, (GER) is a temporary condition when stomach acid and stomach contents splash back up into your lower esophagus and causes a burning sensation or pain. The esophagus is the tube that connects your throat to your stomach. The pain occurs in the middle of your chest and is commonly referred to as heartburn. Acid reflux symptoms are only temporary and occur incidentally or occasionally after you consume acidic foods like coffee, alcohol, or citrus.


What is gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD?


Gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders in the U.S. with approximately 20% of adults suffering from it, according to the National Library of Medicine. GERD happens overtime when you experience acid reflux episodes regularly. When stomach acid repeatedly splashes back up into your esophagus it weakens the seal between the stomach and the muscle that closes the esophagus. The negative interaction between stomach acid and the esophagus leads to the cause of heartburn or discomfort and pain.


If left untreated GERD, may lead to serious complications such as a precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus, and esophageal cancer. If you experience severe or frequent acid reflux or take over-the-counter heartburn medications more than twice a week, speak to a Nuvance Health gastroenterologist.


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What are the symptoms of GERD and acid reflux?


Both gastroesophageal reflux disease and acid reflux share the same symptoms. However, sometimes acid reflux advances into gastroesophageal reflux disease. The most common symptom of both GERD and acid reflux are heartburn but the following symptoms are also possible:

  • Heartburn that feels like burning in your chest, throat or mouth
  • Backwash or regurgitation of food or acidic liquid
  • Upper abdominal or chest pain
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Sensation of a lump in your throat


Related Content: Burning question: What causes GERD? How to find fast relief


How to treat occasional acid reflux


Occasional heartburn from acid reflux can be treated with a variety of lifestyle changes such as:

  • Eating smaller portions during meals.
  • Avoid eating meals two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Elevating the head of your bed when you sleep at night.
  • Not eating foods that trigger your heartburn symptoms.
  • Not wearing tight fitted clothing around your chest and waist.
  • Avoiding drinking alcohol or using tobacco products.
  • Losing weight.


In addition to lifestyle changes, occasional acid reflux can be treated with over the counter medicine to neutralize or reduce stomach acid such as:


If you experience acid reflux frequently and have also experienced weight loss, loss of appetite or have a family history of esophageal cancer, speak to a Nuvance Health gastroenterologist for consultation.


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Related Content: Heartburn trouble? Here are the worst and best foods for acid reflux.


The bottom line: Although they share similar symptoms, most people don’t know there is a difference between gastroesophageal reflux disease and acid reflux. Acid reflux happens every once in a while after eating certain foods or drinks like spicy salsa or acidic orange juice. Chronic acid reflux can cause GERD. Both acid reflux and GERD can be treated with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications such as antacids and H-2 Blockers. It’s important to see your gastroenterologist if you regularly have acid reflux to avoid GERD and possible long-term health complications from it.