Acid reflux is a common medical condition that can range in severity from mild to serious. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the chronic, more severe form of acid reflux. Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux and GERD.
What is heartburn?
The term “heartburn” is misleading. The heart actually has nothing to do with the pain. Heartburn occurs in your digestive system. Specifically, in your esophagus. Heartburn involves mild to severe pain in the chest. It’s sometimes mistaken for heart attack pain.
What is acid reflux?
A circular muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) joins your esophagus and stomach. This muscle is in charge of tightening your esophagus after food passes to the stomach. If this muscle is weak or doesn’t tighten properly, the acid from your stomach can move backward into your esophagus. This is known as acid reflux.
Acid reflux can cause heartburn and other symptoms that include:
- sore throat
- bitter taste in the back of the throat
- sour taste in the mouth
- burning and pressure that can extend up the breastbone
What is GERD?
GERD is the chronic form of acid reflux. It’s diagnosed when acid reflux occurs more than twice a week or causes inflammation in the esophagus. Long-term damage of the esophagus can lead to cancer. Pain from GERD may or may not be relieved with antacids or other over-the-counter (OTC) medication.
Symptoms of GERD include:
- bad breath
- damage to tooth enamel due to excess acid
- feeling like stomach contents have come back up to the throat or mouth, or regurgitation
- chest pain
- persistent dry cough
- trouble swallowing
Most people can experience heartburn and acid reflux intermittently related to something they ate or habits like lying down immediately after eating. However, GERD is a chronic condition where doctors start to examine long-lasting habits and parts of a person’s anatomy that could cause GERD.
Heartburn and GERD in pregnant women
Heartburn and GERD are commonly associated with pregnancy and can occur in women who may never have had GERD symptoms before. Pregnant women usually experience GERD symptoms around the first trimester. It then worsens in the last trimester. The good news is that when your baby is born, your symptoms usually go away.
Pregnancy can increase levels of the hormone progesterone, which can cause the muscles of the lower esophagus to relax. This makes it more likely that acid will reflux. Increased pressure on the stomach from a growing uterus can also increase a woman’s likelihood for having GERD.
Symptoms include pain that gets worse after a meal and acid regurgitation. Because the symptoms tend to be temporary, a woman usually doesn’t experience the long-term complications associated with GERD, like ongoing inflammation.
When to call your doctor
Symptoms of heartburn are often mistaken for heart attack, but the two conditions are unrelated. You should call 911 immediately if your heartburn discomfort and chest pain changes or gets worse and is accompanied by:
- difficulty breathing
- pain in your arm or jaw
These symptoms can be symptoms of a heart attack.
Sometimes GERD symptoms can indicate the need for emergency medical treatment. These include:
- experiencing regular, forceful (projectile) vomiting
- having difficulty breathing
- having difficulty swallowing
- vomiting fluid with bright red blood or coffee-ground-like contents
Not all heartburn requires medical care. Infrequent and mild heartburn can be treated with antacids and lifestyle changes, like avoiding spicy foods. Occasional reflux is not a cause for concern. You should consult a doctor if you have heartburn two or more times a week or if over-the-counter medications don’t relieve your discomfort.