Difference Between GERD and Heartburn

Food flows from the mouth down the esophagus to the stomach. However there are certain instances wherein food regurgitates and flows back to the throat and mouth. This abnormal condition is referred to as GERD and/or heartburn. This article will focus on distinguishing GERD and heartburn.


GERD vs Heartburn
The digestive system

GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic digestive disease characterized by damage to the lining of the esophagus. It is caused by a dysfunction of the lower esophageal sphincter resulting in the backflow of food from the stomach back to the esophagus. If regurgitation and backflow of fluid occurs more than twice a week consultation with a medical doctor is needed because it can result in GERD.

Heartburn on the other hand is an uncomfortable burning sensation felt from the chest down to the upper central abdomen. Pain can also extend until the neck, throat, and angle of the jaw. Pain intensifies when the patient is lying down or bending. It is usually associated with the spreading of gastric acid from the stomach to the esophagus which is commonly seen by patients suffering from GERD. As a matter of fact, it is the major symptom of GERD. Remember, not all heartburn leads to GERD; if heartburn increases in frequency GERD can occur.

Comparison Chart

GERD Heartburn
It is a disease It is a symptom of a disease
Signs and symptoms include: heartburn, chest pain, dysphagia, dry cough, sore throat or hoarseness, acid reflux Signs and symptoms include: burning sensation in the chest after eating; pain exacerbated by lying down or when bending
Risk factors include: obesity, hiatal hernia, pregnancy, smoking, dry mouth, asthma, diabetes, delayed stomach emptying, scleroderma Risk factors include: spicy foods, onion, citrus products, tomato products, fatty or fried foods, peppermint, chocolate, alcohol, carbonated beverages, coffee, caffeinated drinks, large meals, overweight, and pregnancy
Complications include: esophageal stricture, esophageal ulcer, and Barrett’s esophagus Complications can lead to GERD
Treatment includes lifestyle and dietary change, medication, and in severe cases surgery may be indicated Treatment includes medications

GERD vs Heartburn

What is the difference between GERD and heartburn?

  • Both are digestive related disorders associated with the regurgitation or backflow of food and gastric acid from the stomach to the esophagus. GERD is the disease itself, while heartburn is a symptom, a painful sensation. As a matter of fact heartburn is the major symptom of GERD.
  • Although the two are closely related there are differences in symptoms. Symptoms of GERD include heartburn or a burning sensation, chest pain, dysphagia or difficulty in swallowing, dry cough, hoarseness or sore throat, and/or acid reflux or regurgitation of food or liquid. As for heartburn it is the burning sensation felt in the chest after eating. This sensation is aggravated when lying down or bending. If symptoms persist and/or other symptoms are felt consult a medical professional immediately. It may indicate a more severe disease.
  • The risk of having GERD increases when a person is obese or overweight or has hiatal hernia (this is a condition wherein the top of the stomach bulges into the diaphragm). Other risk factors include: pregnancy, smoking, dry mouth, asthma, diabetes, delayed stomach emptying, and scleroderma which is a connective tissue disorder. On the other hand, the risk factors for heartburn are obesity and pregnancy. However, there are some foods that can increase the chance of having heartburn, such as spicy foods, onions, citrus products, tomato products like ketchup, fatty and fried foods, peppermint, chocolate, alcohol, carbonated beverages, coffee, caffeinated drinks, and large meals.
  • If left untreated, complications can ensue. GERD can cause changes and damage to the esophagus such as esophageal stricture, esophageal ulcer, and Barrett’s esophagus. Esophageal stricture is the narrowing of the esophagus due to scar formation. Esophageal ulcer is erosion of the esophageal lining caused by regurgitation of stomach acid. In the worst situations, bleeding can occur. Both esophageal stricture and esophageal ulcers can cause difficulty in swallowing. Barrett’s esophagus is precancerous, wherein the tissue lining changes in form. Heartburn can lead to GERD if left untreated.
  • The best way to treat GERD is by lifestyle and dietary change. Avoid obesity. Being overweight can put pressure on the abdomen, including the stomach. Pressure on the stomach can cause acid to flow back to the esophagus. This is the same rationale as to why it is best to wear loose clothes. Avoid smoking. Smoking can cause a dysfunction of the esophageal sphincter; a dysfunction or weak esophageal sphincter can cause backflow of acid. As mentioned, there are foods that can trigger regurgitation, avoidance of such is recommended. Do not lie down after eating; wait for at least three hours. Lying down on a full stomach can put pressure on the stomach causing backflow of acid. Medications can also be prescribed to reduce acid reflux. A few of these drugs include antacids that reduce, neutralize or inhibit the production of stomach acids. In conditions where lifestyle and dietary changes and medications are not enough, surgery is needed. Two of the most common surgical procedures include Nissen fundoplication or surgery to reinforce the lower sphincter, and Linx or surgery to strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter.

For heartburn, treatment would include maintaining a healthy weight, wearing loose clothing, avoiding smoking and foods that trigger heartburn. The same medications can also be given to patients suffering from heartburn.