The terms heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD are often used interchangeably. They actually have very different meanings.
Acid reflux is a common medical condition that can range in severity from mild to serious. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic, more severe form of acid reflux. Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux and GERD.
Heartburn is due to inflammation in the lining of the esophagus. This can cause a burning sensation throughout the entire tract, which extends from the throat down past the chest. For most people, heartburn is an occasional problem that is exacerbated by spicy food, smoking, and overindulging. Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a form of severe and chronic acid reflux. Those who suffer from GERD are often asked to make lifestyle changes to improve their quality of life, such as quitting smoking, drinking in moderation or teetotaling, losing weight, and watching what they eat. While a mild case of heartburn is typically cured by taking an antacid or two, those with GERD often must resort to pharmacological measures to improve the problem, such as proton pump inhibitors (PPI), which block acid in the stomach. Those with symptoms of GERD (chronic reflux) should consult with a gastroenterologist, while intermittent cases of heartburn can often be managed with lifestyle changes and preventative measures.
Severity, frequency, or intensity of symptoms cannot distinguish between patients with or without erosive GERD. However, heartburn that occurs
● more frequently than once a week,
● becomes more severe, or
● occurs at night and wakes a person from sleep,
Maybe a sign of a more serious condition and consultation with a physician is advised.
Atypical symptoms such as hoarseness, wheezing, chronic cough, or non-cardiac chest pain may also need to be evaluated by a physician for GERD as a cause. Even occasional heartburn – if it has occurred for five years or more, or is associated with dysphagia – may signal an association with a more serious condition.
The goals of GERD treatment are:
● To bring the symptoms under control so that the individual feels better;
● heal the esophagus of inflammation or injury;
● manage or prevent complications such as Barrett’s esophagus or stricture;
● and maintain the symptoms of GERD in remission so that daily life is unaffected or minimally affected by reflux.
A diagnosis of GERD should be made by a physician. The disease can usually be diagnosed based on the presentation of symptoms alone. GERD can occur, however, with no apparent symptoms. Diagnostic tests may be used to confirm or exclude a diagnosis or to look for complications such as inflammation, stricture, or Barrett’s esophagus.
GERD is a recurrent and chronic disease for which long-term medical therapy is usually effective. It is important to recognize that chronic reflux does not resolve itself. There is not yet a cure for GERD. Long-term and appropriate treatment is necessary.
Treatment options include lifestyle modifications, medications, surgery, or a combination of methods. Over-the-counter preparations provide only temporary symptom relief. They do not prevent the recurrence of symptoms or allow an injured esophagus to heal. They should not be taken regularly as a substitute for prescription medicines – they may be hiding a more serious condition. If needed regularly, for more than two weeks, consult a physician for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
What is heartburn?
Most people describe heartburn as a burning sensation in the center of the chest behind the breast bone. It may radiate upward toward the throat. Heartburn is usually caused by acid reflux in the esophagus.
The lining of the esophagus is much more sensitive to acid than the stomach, which is why the burning sensation is felt. In people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), persistent heartburn can be painful, can disrupt daily activities, and can awaken a person at night.
Is heartburn dangerous?
Heartburn is a symptom and it is very common. Nevertheless, if heartburn occurs regularly, the acid that causes heartburn has the potential to injure the lining of the esophagus. It can cause ulceration, which may cause discomfort or even bleeding.
Stricture (narrowing of the esophagus caused by acid, which leads to scar formation) can also result from chronic and frequent acidic reflux. People with stricture have difficulty swallowing food.