In a nutshell, acid reflux is a condition affecting the digestive tract and heartburn is one of the symptoms. Both are caused by stomach acid flowing back up the esophagus and irritating it.

The esophagus is a long tube of mostly smooth muscle with one end at the throat and the other at the stomach. The bottom of the esophagus has a valve that is generally supposed to stay closed. During digestion, the valve opens to let the food pass through to the stomach and then closes again. In acid reflux, however, the valve opens when it isn’t supposed to and lets the stomach’s contents, including digestive juices, flow back up the esophagus.

Acid reflux can cause a variety of symptoms that include an upset stomach, sore throat, nausea, bloating, and trouble swallowing. Heartburn is one of the more common symptoms. As the name suggests, it is a burning sensation that feels as if it’s happening somewhere around the heart. It’s actually in the esophagus, which is behind the heart. Heartburn can occur at any time, but it is most likely to be worse after the patient has eaten. In many cases, lying down makes the heartburn worse, so many patients have trouble sleeping.

What is GERD?

GERD stands for Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, and it is the chronic form of acid reflux. Most people do experience acid reflux and heartburn on occasion. A patient has developed GERD, however, if they have acid reflux more than twice a week during a weeks-long period. A doctor will also diagnose a patient as having GERD if their symptoms haven’t responded to over-the-counter medications and other attempts at home care like changing their diet or wearing loose clothing that doesn’t put pressure on the stomach.

When should someone with acid reflux see a doctor?

If the patient has GERD or suspects they might have GERD, they should call their doctor. The persistent irritation of the esophagus can eventually damage it and cause such complications as ulcers, scar tissue that narrows the esophagus, and even esophageal cancer.

Other symptoms that require a doctor’s attention include unexplained weight loss, trouble swallowing, severe stomach pain, and chronic hoarseness. The patient should also see the doctor if the heartburn is accompanied by vomiting, particularly if they are vomiting blood or black material that resembles coffee grounds. The latter is actually dried blood. The patient should also call their doctor if their symptoms are severe enough to interfere with their daily routine or if the acid reflux hasn’t responded to any medications.