Facts About Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and GERD

Facts About Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and GERD

by Holly (SU)

The terms heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) are often used interchangeably. In reality, they can be very different.

Heartburn is just one of the symptoms of acid reflux and GERD. It happens when the stomach acid creates a burning feeling in your chest.

Acid reflux is a common condition, can be mild or severe, and intermittent or frequent. This occurs when stomach acid flows upward, into the esophagus and toward the throat. This can be treated with over-the-counter remedies such as Tums, Tagamet HB, Pepcid AC, and Prilosec OTC.

GERD is the chronic, severe form of acid reflux. Someone with GERD may experience coughing, problems swallowing, chest pain, and other symptoms. Prescription medications may be able to alleviate and control the symptoms of GERD.

How Does Heartburn Happen?

When you swallow, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens and closes again. When this small band of muscle becomes weak and malfunctions – closing too frequently or not often enough – it allows stomach acid to reflux, or regurgitate, back into the esophagus.

Although it’s called heartburn, this condition has nothing to do with the heart. The term originates from the typical symptoms, many of which mimic a heart attack.

Heartburn can worsen existing health conditions or develop into more serious medical conditions.

Heartburn Basics

A sharp, burning or tightening sensation or pressure in the upper abdomen or behind the breastbone characterizes heartburn. The sensation can include the upper or lower neck and throat, and it may get worse while swallowing. It can occur soon after a meal, lasting from a few minutes to several hours.

Anyone may suffer from temporary heartburn, but chronic symptoms may be due to underlying conditions, such as stomach ulcers or GERD. Antacids and proton-pump inhibitors can help stop acid production in the stomach. 

If left untreated, chronic heartburn and reflux can damage the esophagus, increasing the likelihood of esophageal cancer.

Causes of Heartburn

Multiple factors may be responsible for causing or aggravating heartburn and acid reflux. These include the following:

Dietary Causes

Consuming large portions of food can contribute to heartburn and acid reflux, especially foods containing onions, garlic, tomatoes, and citrus fruit. High-fat and spicy foods, and sweets like chocolate and peppermint, are also culprits.

Alcoholic, caffeinated, carbonated, and citrus beverages are notorious for causing heartburn. Eating late in the day and lying down soon after eating are known triggers of heartburn and acid reflux.

Lifestyle Causes

Carrying excess weight, and also wearing restrictive or tight clothing, can create pressure that can bring on heartburn. Being stressed and worried, or smoking, can be other lifestyle causes. 

Medical Causes

Pregnancy can cause increased levels of the hormone progesterone, which relaxes the LES, enabling acid reflux. Pressure from the growing fetus can increase the risk of heartburn and GERD.

A hiatal hernia, which is when the stomach bulges into the chest cavity, can also aggravate heartburn. Some anti-inflammatory medications are also contributors to heartburn.

Common Symptoms of Heartburn

Heartburn and acid reflux can cause many different physical symptoms, including:

·      An upward-moving burning sensation in the upper abdomen and chest

·      Bad taste in the mouth after a meal or while lying down or bending over

·      Disturbed sleep, especially after late evening eating

·      Sour, acidic, hot, salty, or bitter taste in the mouth

·      Stomach contents rise up into the throat

·      Sensation of food sticking in throat or chest

·      Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)

·      Burping

·      Bloated feeling

·      Chronic cough

·      Sore or hoarse throat

·      Wheezing or asthma-like symptoms

·      Pain during physical activity or exercise

Lesser-Known Symptoms

The following symptoms require medical attention to determine whether they may indicate more serious conditions:

·      Continuous hiccups

·      Pain radiating to neck and shoulders

·      Difficulty or pain while swallowing

·      Cold sweats

·      Shortness of breath

·      Lightheadedness or dizziness

Heartburn at Night

Lying flat on your back can cause stomach acid to flow into the esophagus, and can keep it there for longer periods than when awake and standing or sitting upright. This can cause heartburn and acid reflux.

This is why nighttime heartburn can impact your health and lifestyle by disrupting sleep. Nightly heartburn causes further damage to the esophagus, with heightened risk of esophageal lesions and cancer.

Elevating the head and shoulders by 6 - 8 inches can help. Some people sleep on a foam wedge (placed above the mattress, under the head and upper torso) to help lessen or prevent further reflux.

There's also an increased risk of choking with nighttime heartburn. Foods in the stomach can be inhaled into the lungs, causing further damage in these organs as well.

When to See Your Doctor

Seek medical help if you experience any of the following symptoms:

·      Frequent heartburn (several times a week)

·      Over-the-counter medications fail to alleviate the heartburn

·      Difficulty swallowing

·      Persistent nausea or vomiting

·      Weight loss due to lack of appetite or eating difficulties

If you're worried that the symptoms may indicate a heart attack, you must get medical help immediately.

At Anne Arundel Gastroenterology Associates, we use the latest technology and diagnostic testing to thoroughly evaluate your symptoms and correctly identify your condition. If you are experiencing symptoms of heartburn, acid reflux, or GERD, call us today at (410) 224-2116 to schedule an appointment with one of our gastroenterologists, or request an appointment online.