Difference between Heartburn, Indigestion, and Acid Reflux

Updated on February 14, 2018

Heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux are all gastrointestinal issues many people experience. What exactly is the difference between these three medical issues? This article will help explain.


Antacid tablets

Heartburn, sometimes called pyrosis, acid indigestion, or cardialgia, is a symptom which manifests as pain in the throat or neck, and a burning in the chest area. Heartburn itself is a symptom rather than a disease or disorder, and is often caused by eating spicy foods, a large quantity of food, or foods high in acid or fat. It can also be a side effect of certain medications. Heartburn is often a symptom of gastroesophageal flux disease (GERD), known as acid reflux. Heartburn can be treated with the antacid calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate can be found in over-the-counter antacid tablets, pictured below. One well-known example of antacid tablets is Tums.

Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, can be indicated via a variety of symptoms. It is a condition caused by impaired digestion of some sort. Similarly to heartburn, indigestion can be caused by eating spicy foods or foods high in fat, or as a side effect of certain medications. It can also be caused by ingesting too much caffeine or alcohol, or by smoking tobacco products. Other factors that contribute to dyspepsia are stress and anxiety, as well as conditions such as ulcers, gastritis, or GERD/acid reflux. Symptoms of indigestion include stomach-ache, nausea, heartburn, a feeling of uncomfortable fullness in the stomach, and feeling bloated. Indigestion usually goes away on its own, but when it does not, treating it involves lifestyle changes such as not eating late at night, avoiding spicy foods, and drinking fluids after a meal. Some medications such as proton-pump inhibitors may help in alleviating symptoms of indigestion, but are typically not designed for the purpose and have not been shown to be effective in all cases.

Acid reflux

Acid reflux, the medical term for which is gastroesophageal flux disease or GERD, is a condition wherein stomach acid comes up from the stomach into the esophagus. It is caused by changes in the barrier between the stomach and the esophagus. The lining for the esophagus is not as strong as the lining for the stomach, and therefore stomach acid in the esophagus will cause pain and discomfort. This barrier change is caused by the sphincter that separates the esophagus and the stomach not functioning correctly, which is subsequently caused by things such as (but not limited to) a hiatal hernia and a high blood calcium level. Symptoms for acid reflux include heartburn, indigestion, and regurgitation, or the feeling of acid or fullness in the esophagus. Acid reflux can be treated with antacids, proton-pump inhibitors, and lifestyle changes. Severe cases will require surgery. The picture above shows the x-ray of a patient’s stomach injected with a radiocontrast, which is traveling to the esophagus, signifying the weak barrier between stomach and esophagus.

Heartburn vs Indigestion vs Acid Reflux

What are the differences between heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux (GERD)? The main differences are:

  • Whether or not they are symptoms of each other
  • What each is caused by
  • Where each is felt
  • How to treat each

Acid reflux and indigestion both cause heartburn, but heartburn does not cause acid reflux or indigestion. Rather, heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux and indigestion. Additionally, acid reflux is not caused by indigestion, but indigestion is a symptom of acid reflux. Heartburn and indigestion are both symptoms of acid reflux, but acid reflux is neither a symptom of heartburn nor one of indigestion. Heartburn is a symptom, whereas acid reflux and indigestion are both conditions.

Heartburn can be caused by acid reflux, as mentioned before, but can also be caused by eating spicy foods, foods high in fat or acid, or a high quantity of food. It is also sometimes caused by certain medications. Indigestion is caused by similar factors, but can also be caused by underlying conditions like ulcers and gastritis. GERD is not caused by spicy foods (though spicy foods can worsen conditions of GERD), but by a poor functioning of the sphincter separating the stomach and the esophagus.

Heartburn is felt in the chest area, and some people who experience heartburn may believe they are experiencing a heart attack. Acid reflux is experienced in the throat area. Indigestion is experienced in the upper stomach.

Heartburn is usually treated with antacids. GERD can be treated with antacids, proton-pump inhibitors, and lifestyle changes such as not eating spicy foods, foods high in fat and acid, and not smoking as frequently. More severe cases of acid reflux may need surgery. Indigestion is not treated with a specific medication, and most often goes away on its own. When it does not, it will need lifestyle changes.

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