What’s the Difference Between Heartburn and GERD? | Whittier, CA | PIH Health

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Published on November 22, 2021

What’s the Difference Between Heartburn and GERD?

Photo of a woman clutching her chest in discomfortThis week is GERD Awareness Week! While heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms may be similar, it is important to know the difference. Here’s how to tell whether the symptoms you’re experiencing are due to the occasional heartburn or GERD—and whether it’s necessary to see a doctor or not.


More than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month. Although many people mistake heartburn symptoms for heart attack symptoms, the two are not related. Heartburn is related to the digestive system and is a symptom of acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when the muscle that joins your esophagus and stomach is weak and doesn’t tighten properly, causing the acid to move backward into your esophagus. This most commonly occurs after:

  • Eating spicy foods or citrus foods
  • Drinking coffee or alcohol
  • Eating a big meal
  • Eating too quickly
  • Laying down too soon after eating

When stomach acid enters your esophagus, it can cause discomfort in your chest. This is the sensation known as heartburn. The pain may feel like burning, pressure or tightness behind the breastbone and may be mild or severe. Mild, infrequent heartburn can often be treated with medications like antacids and is often temporary. But if you find that these symptoms occur often, it may be an indication that you have a more serious gastrointestinal problem such as GERD.


Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic form of acid reflux. Symptoms include:

  • Frequent heartburn/chest pain
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Bad breath
  • Feeling like there’s a lump in the back of your throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Damage to tooth enamel
  • Asthma

Several conditions may contribute to GERD including:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being pregnant
  • Having a hiatal hernia
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Taking certain medications, such as antihistamines, calcium channel blockers, pain-relieving medicines, sedatives or antidepressants

GERD is typically diagnosed when acid reflux occurs more than twice a week or causes inflammation in the esophagus. Undiagnosed GERD over time can cause damage to the lining of the esophagus which can lead to higher risk of esophageal cancer. While certain medications can reduce stomach acid, they are not always effective and cannot prevent long term damage.

If you suspect you have GERD, talk to your doctor about possible treatment options so you can live more comfortably and reduce any risk of long-term damage to your esophagus. Call 562.698.0306 to schedule an appointment today with a digestive health specialist at PIH Health or to learn more about digestive health services at PIH Health visit: https://www.pihhealth.org/health-services/gastroenterology/.


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