Articles GERD Nearly everyone has experienced a bout of heartburn in their lives. Most patients are familiar with heartburn, whether it had to do with spicy food, eating too fast, or another common reason for this burning sensation in the chest. The term heartburn actually has nothing to do with the heart—it has to do with the lining of the esophagus. When there is too much acid in the esophagus, it can cause a stinging or burning pain that seems to come from the chest. For most people, heartburn is an occasional annoyance, but for others, it can severely affect their quality of life because of its frequency. The terms heartburn, acid reflux, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are often used interchangeably—but are they really the same thing? Read on to learn more about the differences between acid reflux and GERD, the risk factors associated with both conditions, and what can be done for treatment.

What Is Acid Reflux?

Acid reflux is a condition that causes heartburn when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) does not close properly. The LES is a muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that separates the esophagus and stomach. After you eat, the muscle should close, keeping digestive juices and stomach acid in your stomach where they belong. In some people, the LES is weakened, or it does not work properly. In these cases, digestive juices leak back up into the esophagus, which causes the condition known as heartburn. It’s important to note that acid reflux is a gastrointestinal condition, and heartburn is one of its symptoms.

Patients can experience heartburn without having a diagnosis of acid reflux. Some risk factors that can contribute to cases of heartburn include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Eating spicy or acidic foods
  • Eating fatty foods

If you have frequent heartburn but not acid reflux, your gastroenterologist may recommend lifestyle changes, such as improved diet, an exercise regimen, smoking cessation, and avoiding spicy and acidic foods (such as tomatoes and tomato products). For those that have just occasional bouts of heartburn, it can often be alleviated with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications, such as antacids.

If you have acid reflux, you will experience other symptoms in addition to heartburn. These may include gastrointestinal symptoms but can also include symptoms that may seem symptoms associated with a common cold or respiratory infection. Other symptoms of acid reflux can include:

  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Burning in the back or breastbone
  • A sour or bitter taste in the throat or mouth

If you experience frequent heartburn that isn’t easily relieved by OTC medications along with these other symptoms, it’s wise to have a checkup with your doctor.

What is GERD?

GERD is a more advanced and chronic type of acid reflux. So to recap, heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, and the difference between acid reflux and GERD is that GERD is a more serious and chronic form of acid reflux. The three are all related but slightly different. If you have symptoms of acid reflux that occur twice or more in one week, your physician may diagnose you with GERD. Symptoms from GERD may not be well-managed with OTC medications and may persist. A concern with GERD is that if it goes untreated, long-term damage to the esophagus can occur. Over time, if the esophagus is damaged, this can lead to Barrett’s esophagus, which is a thickening of the esophagus lining. Having Barrett’s esophagus increases your risk of developing esophageal cancer exponentially, so it’s important to address acid reflux and GERD concerns with your doctor as soon as possible. GERD symptoms are similar to those of acid reflux but can also include:

  • Bad breath
  • Breakdown of tooth enamel
  • Chest pain
  • Regurgitation
  • Asthma
  • Trouble swallowing

How Is GERD Diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will likely want to run some diagnostic testing if you self-report that you are having incidences of acid reflux more than twice a week. The two types of tests usually used to detect GERD include an upper endoscopy or 24-hour impedance-probe study. With the 24-hour study, a tube is placed in the nose and ends in the esophagus. Over the 24-hour period, the tube can sense if digestive juices are regurgitating back into the esophagus.

An upper endoscopy is slightly different and is an outpatient procedure. A thin, flexible tube is placed into the throat with a camera on one end. The tube can extend down into the small intestine and gets a look at a predominant part of your gastrointestinal tract. The camera can let your doctor know if a diagnosis of GERD is warranted, based on the condition of the stomach.

Can GERD Be Cured?

The symptoms of GERD can be arrested through lifestyle changes and medications. The first-line medicinal treatment for GERD is a proton-pump inhibitor. Some of these are available over the counter, such as Nexium or Prevacid, while others are prescription strength. Your physician may also recommend lifestyle changes, similar to the type you would make to avoid occasional heartburn. Lifestyle recommendations may include:

  • Smoking cessation
  • Alcohol cessation or moderation
  • Weight loss
  • Modifications in diet (avoiding spicy, fatty, and acidic foods, etc.)

With lifestyle adjustments and medication, GERD symptoms can usually be managed, which also protects the lining of the esophagus from damage. In addition to proton-pump inhibitors, your doctor may recommend a different line of treatment and may prescribe H2 blockers, antacids, or prokinetics. Each individual patient’s case is different.

How Can I Prevent GERD? Ask your local GI Associate located throughout Mississippi

To prevent GERD, acid reflux, or even occasional bouts of heartburn, you can take some preventative measures. It’s advised not to lie down immediately after a meal or to eat or chew too quickly. Smoking and heavy alcohol use should be avoided, as well as high-fat foods. Maintaining a healthy weight and following a healthy diet can also prevent GERD symptoms. Doctors also advise elevating your pillows when you sleep and avoiding tight-fitting clothes.

If you need more information about GERD, acid reflux, or heartburn or would like to be seen by a physician, contact us today. We provide quality care for all types of gastrointestinal distress and conditions, including acid reflux and GERD.

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