Cover image for difference between GERD and heartburn


Gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD is the backing up of the stomach’s contents back into the food pipe. To understand GERD in detail, we need to know about acid reflux first.  

In normal circumstances, when you gulp the food, a circular band of muscles known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) present at the end of the esophagus relaxes and opens. When the lower esophageal sphincter doesn’t tighten or close properly, contents from the stomach including digestive juices regurgitates into the food pipe. 


The term ‘Heartburn’ can often be misleading. This is so because people suffering from heartburn does not have a problem in their heart but rather in their digestive system. People often confuse it with a cardiac arrest as mild to severe pain occurs in the chest. 

Moreover, heartburn is more like a symptom than a condition. People with heartburn experience a  feeling of burning, pain or discomfort in the chest. The food pipe lies beneath the chest. Hence, heartburn occurs when the acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus leading to a sensation of burning. 


How to differentiate between GERD and Heartburn?

Now, you know that heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, but there are additional symptoms that you should know so that you are able to make out the difference between heartburn and GERD. Doctors diagnose between GERD and heartburn by looking out for the additional symptoms that are mentioned below-

  • Sour or bitter taste at the back of the throat
  • Soreness of the throat
  • Stomach upset
  • Bloating
  • Feeling of nausea
  • A feeling of tightness in the throat
  • Bad breath
  • A feeling that the contents of the stomach are coming back up 
  • Chest pain
  • Dry cough 
  • Dysphagia, which is difficulty in swallowing

Heartburn causes more of a burning sensation in the chest. This feeling of ‘burn’ is felt high in the abdomen, below the breastbone or underneath the middle of the breastbone inside the chest. The burning sensation lasts for a few minutes or a little longer. 

Interestingly, heartburn can lead to acid reflux. Heartburn usually occurs after eating a meal. Therefore, sometimes small particles of chewed food that are partially digested can back up and cause acid reflux. 

What is it?Medical conditionSymptom of GERD
Additional symptoms such as bloating, nausea, soreness of the throatYesNo
Chronic YesNo

What causes GERD and heartburn?

Heartburn is caused by backing up of the acidic contents from the stomach back in the esophagus. Unfortunately, there are factors that increase the production of acid in the stomach. Some of them are mentioned below-

  • Irritants including common foods and some over-the-counter medications that we consume can stimulate the overproduction of acid paving the way for heartburn. Some of them are-Food that can cause heartburn

-Caffeinated products


-Carbonated drinks

-Citrus juices such as grapefruit, oranges, pineapples, etc.

-Aspirin, ibuprofen, Naproxen


  • Some diseases of the esophagus such as scleroderma, sarcoidosis can cause heartburn. 
  • Sometimes the lower esophageal sphincter can get affected due to smoking or eating foods that are rich in high-fat. This leads to the relaxation of these muscles that causes acid to back up into the esophagus.
  • Heartburn followed by acid reflux can also occur when there is increased pressure in the abdomen due to obesity or pregnancy. 

Also read: Heartburn during pregnancy

How to treat GERD and heartburn?

Fortunately, simple diet and lifestyle modifications can help in getting relief from the symptoms of reflux and heartburn. Some of them are discussed below-

  • Generally, acid refluxes occur after eating large meals. The larger the meal, the higher the risk. Hence, avoid overeating.
  • As discussed above, excessive pressure due to obesity is another reason for acid reflux. Therefore, losing weight is another vital option.
  • Now you know that excessive alcohol can affect the band of muscles that control the movement of food going down the food pipe. Limit your alcohol consumption to prevent as well as get relief from symptoms.
  • Caffeinated products make symptoms of acid reflux and heartburn worse. Control the consumption of coffee regularly.
  • Don’t lie down immediately after eating.

In some cases, acid reflux can only be cured with surgery. The surgery for treating acid reflux is known as fundoplication. In the acid reflux surgery, a gastroenterologist takes a little muscle from the upper part of the stomach and wraps it around the end of the esophagus. This helps to increase the pressure at the end of the esophagus and thereby cures acid reflux. The most effective treatment option is the laparoscopic procedure as it ensures faster recovery and decreased post-operative pain. 

Also Read: Difference between Hiatal Hernia and GERD