While people often talk about reflux and GERD interchangeably, these are not the same. There are distinct differences. GERD is a disorder that involves frequent reflux while acid reflux itself is a symptom that may or may not be associated with GERD.

What is reflux?

Your stomach uses strong acids to break down foods so that the nutrients can be extracted. The lining of your stomach is specially coated to protect it from damage. Your esophagus, however, is not.

Acid reflux occurs when the digestive acid from your stomach flows up into the esophagus. The result is painful acid indigestion.

Acid reflux is one of the most common digestive complaints, which over 60 million people in the US experiencing heartburn at least once a month. Around 15 million experience it on a daily basis. GERD, a disease associated with frequent reflux, affects anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of the population at some point in time or another.

Causes of reflux

Most people will experience reflux at least occasionally. Usually, it is associated with the consumption of certain foods and drink. Fatty or fried foods, acidic foods, chocolate, coffee and alcoholic beverages can all cause reflux.

Additionally, people who have certain risk factors may experience reflux more often. These risk factors include:

  • obesity
  • a high intake of table salt
  • smoking or frequent exposure to secondhand smoke
  • low levels of physical activity
  • high alcohol or caffeine intake
  • taking medications such as antidepressants, sedatives, painkillers, antihistamines, asthma medications and calcium-channel blockers

Symptoms of reflux

The main symptom of acid reflux is heartburn. This is a pain that originates in the chest and can move into the throat or neck. In severe cases, it can sometimes be mistaken for the pain of a heart attack.

Some individuals will experience a foul taste in their mouths that is acidic or bitter.

The symptoms of heartburn may get worse when you lie down or bend over.

Other symptoms may include coughing, wheezing, nausea, vomiting, and difficulty swallowing. Some people develop bad breath as a result of reflux.

When reflux happens two or more times per week, it is considered a sign of GERD.

Diagnosing Reflux

Because acid reflux can be associated with severe chest pain, it is often necessary to rule out other potential causes such as heart attack, pneumonia, pulmonary embolus and chest wall pain.

GERD can sometimes be diagnosed after finding no improvement to heartburn symptoms even after lifestyle changes. Doctors may also perform a series of tests to look for damage to the esophagus.

Reflux treatment

Prevention is often the best treatment for acid reflux. Avoiding foods that are likely to trigger heartburn can prevent most attacks.

Medications like antacids and those that reduce the amount of acid produced in the stomach can cut the incidence of heartburn.

When people regularly experience heartburn, more aggressive treatment may be needed. In some cases, surgery may be required to stop the flow of acid into the throat to prevent it from causing complications.

Heartburn is a condition that, alone, is often not harmful. However, if you are experiencing heartburn often, talk to your doctor about what could be causing it and the best solution.