Heartburn is a condition in which acidic contents of your stomach wash up into your esophagus, causing a burning sensation. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is a more complex, chronic condition in which the sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus does not close properly, causing repeated episodes of heartburn, sometimes along with other symptoms. It's common for patients to wonder whether they're just suffering from acute heartburn, or whether they have GERD. The best way to find out is to see a doctor, but as you await your appointment, you can also consider the following factors which distinguish between GERD and heartburn.
How often do you have an episode?
Many people suffer from heartburn and have attacks a few times a month, or even once a week. If you're only having heartburn about this frequently, you probably don't have GERD. Generally, the dividing line for diagnosis of GERD is episodes occurring twice a week. There are exceptions, but in general, the less frequent your heartburn episodes, the less likely it is that you have GERD.
What happens when you take antacids?
When you do experience that familiar, burning sensation in your chest, try taking an antacid. If the antacid mostly clears up the symptoms, then you probably just have heartburn. If your esophagus keeps burning, GERD is more likely. Some patients with GERD get relief from antacids for an hour or two, but then the pain comes right back.
Do you have trouble swallowing?
Before, during, and after an attack, pay attention to how you feel when you swallow. If you ever feel like something is caught in your throat, like you have to really think hard about swallowing, or like the food you swallowed is just sitting there, this is a sign of GERD. What may be happening is that your esophageal sphincter is caught in a half-open position, slowing down the rate at which food enters your stomach. Damage to the esophagus from repeated exposure to stomach acid can also slow down swallowing.
Do you have bad breath?
This is another indication of GERD — lingering bad breath that does not go away when brushing your teeth. Since normal heartburn episodes pass, they don't usually cause this lingering bad breath, but with GERD, your sphincter can remain open, causing the odors of stomach contents to keep traveling upward.
If you suspect you may have GERD, definitely go to the doctor. A diagnosis allows you to seek the proper treatment.