Acid Reflux & GERD: A Primer
Find out the differences between the two.
Acid Reflux and GERD are tied closely together—but most people aren’t aware of what differentiates them. Here's an easy way to know the difference: Acid Reflux occurs when the acid in your stomach backs up, or refluxes, into your esophagus, causing heartburn. And Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is chronic or recurring acid reflux.1
Many things can cause acid reflux, including foods like coffee and chocolate, being overweight or pregnant, or eating too much or too quickly.
But what's actually happening inside you? At the entrance of your stomach is the lower esophageal sphincter, a ring of muscle that opens to let food in and closes tight to keep food and acid in the stomach. If this muscle doesn't close all the way or opens too often, acid can flow back into your esophagus, causing heartburn.
Acid reflux is the term used when the acid in your stomach backs up or 'refluxes' into the esophagus where it doesn't belong. The difference between acid reflux and heartburn is that acid reflux is the action and heartburn is the feeling. The movement of stomach acid into the esophagus is acid reflux. The burning feeling caused by this action is heartburn.2
The most common symptom of acid reflux is heartburn — but it isn't the only one. You may not even experience heartburn when you're suffering from acid reflux. Another common symptom is regurgitation, or the feeling of acid backing up into your throat. This can cause a sour or bitter taste in the mouth. You may also experience a "wet burp" or even throw up.2
See your doctor if you experience acid reflux symptoms more than twice a week.
Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD for short, is acid reflux that occurs regularly. Reflux by itself isn't unusual. GERD, on the other hand, develops when acid reflux happens two or more times a week and produces troublesome symptoms. If left untreated, GERD may lead to some serious health problems.1
Since GERD is chronic acid reflux, the same causes apply. Smoking, being overweight or pregnant, or eating spicy, fatty, fried, or acidic foods all are associated with GERD. The symptoms of GERD are similar to those of heartburn—a burning sensation in your chest, a sour or bitter taste in your throat, difficulty swallowing, and chest pain after lying down.
Doctors typically will say you have GERD if you experience acid reflux at least twice per week. That level of frequency suggests there might be something wrong with the muscle between your stomach and esophagus, or that there might be other issues at play.3
When your esophagus or throat is regularly exposed to stomach acid, it can cause pain, throat ulcers and tissue abnormalities. This could affect your quality of life, ability to swallow, breathe and even speak. Unmanaged, this damage could increase your risk of developing certain types of cancers.1
Talk to a healthcare professional if:
- You experience heartburn or acid reflux more than once a week
- You still suffer from heartburn even after taking over-the-counter or prescription medications
- You have been taking an over-the-counter medication longer than the product label recommends
- Your symptoms become more severe over time
- Your heartburn symptoms start lasting longer or become more frequent
- You experience severe hoarseness or wheezing
- Swallowing food or pills becomes difficult or painful4
Talk to your physician if you are experiencing symptoms of Acid Reflux or GERD.
- “Definition & Facts for GER & GERD.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Nov. 2014, www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults/definition-facts.
- “What Is Acid Reflux Disease?” WebMD, www.webmd.com/heartburn-gerd/guide/what-is-acid-reflux-disease#1.
- “Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/heartburn-gerd/guide/reflux-disease-gerd-1#1.
- “Diagnosis of GER & GERD.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Nov. 2014, www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults/diagnosis.
Learn More About Causes