The Similarities and Differences Between Acid Reflux and Heartburn

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed
January 12, 2022

Have you ever experienced an uncomfortable burning feeling behind your breastbone shortly after you eat?

If so, you know how painful heartburn can be.

Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, which occurs when stomach acid enters your esophagus.

It usually goes away on its own, but it’s also important to treat heartburn.

Over time, that stomach acid can damage your esophagus. 

There are a number of reasons people experience symptoms of acid reflux, including pregnancy, certain diets, and a hiatal hernia.

If your acid reflux occurs frequently or is interfering with your ability to eat, then it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider.

Your physician or a K doctor can help determine the cause of your acid reflux and, hopefully, identify a treatment that helps to relieve your symptoms.

What is Acid Reflux? 

Every time you swallow, a small muscle around the bottom of your esophagus, the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach, relaxes to allow food to move down into your stomach.

Afterward, that muscle tightens again.

Acid reflux occurs when that muscle relaxes too much or incompletely tightness, allowing stomach acid to inappropriately enter the esophagus.

Acid reflux can result in a burning sensation in your chest and a sour taste in your throat, a sensation called heartburn. 

Acid reflux can stem from several causes, including pregnancy, drinking alcohol, taking certain medications, and eating certain foods.

It’s important to treat acid reflux, because over time, stomach acid can damage your esophagus.

Are you experiencing acid reflux symptoms? Chat with a doctor today for just $23.

Chat Now

What is Heartburn?

Heartburn is a result of acid reflux, which occurs when the muscle around the esophagus relaxes, opens up, and allows stomach acid to enter your esophagus.

People with heartburn can have a number of symptoms, most commonly characterized by an uncomfortable, burning feeling in the chest or throat.

The esophagus is located right behind the heart, which is why the symptom is known as heartburn. 

Acid reflux usually causes heartburn shortly after eating.

It can also get worse when a person lies down or bends over.

Usually, heartburn goes away after your digestive system completely digests your food.

Acid Reflux vs. Heartburn

It can be confusing to distinguish acid reflux from heartburn.

When the muscle around the esophagus opens up to allow stomach acid to back up into the esophagus, people may experience heartburn symptoms.

Heartburn, then, is a symptom of acid reflux.

Symptoms of Acid Reflux and Heartburn 

If you have acid reflux, you may experience uncomfortable symptoms of heartburn, such as: 

  • A burning feeling behind your breastbone that occurs after you eat 
  • Chest pain 
  • Pain that gets more intense when you lie down or bend over
  • A bitter, sour, or acidic taste in your mouth or throat 
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Regurgitating food
  • A feeling of a lump in your throat 

Heartburn can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, and it usually goes away when your food is fully digested.

Over-the-counter and prescription heartburn medications can also prevent or lessen symptoms. 

Causes of Acid Reflux and Heartburn 

Acid reflux and heartburn can happen to anyone and for a multitude of reasons, but there are several that are the most common.

Medical conditions that may contribute to acid reflux and heartburn include:

  • Pregnancy
  • A hiatal hernia, when your stomach bulges into your chest
  • Medications such as aspirin and certain anti-inflammatory drugs

Acid reflux that happens frequently and interferes with your daily functioning is called gastroesophageal reflux Acid reflux that happens frequently and interferes with your daily functioning may be a medical condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Health conditions or lifestyle factors that increase your risk of GERD are:

  • Obesity 
  • Connective tissue disorders, including scleroderma 
  • Delayed stomach emptying
  • Smoking 
  • Eating large meals
  • Eating late at night 
  • Drinking alcohol or coffee
  • Taking aspirin 

If you think you may have GERD, consult with your health care provider, who can help you understand the cause and find a treatment to alleviate your symptoms and prevent long-term damage to your esophagus. 

Treatment of Acid Reflux and Heartburn 

If you’ve ever experienced heartburn, you know how uncomfortable it can feel.

Luckily, it’s often relatively easy to treat with over-the-counter medications or, if needed, prescription drugs. Common medicines used to treat heartburn include: 

  • Antacids, such as Tums and Rolaids, help relieve heartburn by neutralizing your stomach acid and.
  • H-2 receptor antagonists (H2RAs), such as famotidine (Pepcid AC, Pepcid Oral, and Zantac 360), can help to reduce the amount of stomach acid your body produces.
  • Proton pump inhibitors, including lansoprazole (Prevacid) and omeprazole (Nexium and Prilosec) can also reduce stomach acid in your body and in turn help prevent heartburn symptoms. 

Your health care provider may recommend a prescription-strength acid blocker (in a higher dose than OTC) if OTC medications don’t fully relieve your heartburn symptoms.

You can also get a prescription for a proton pump inhibitor. 

It’s important to treat acid reflux and heartburn because it’s uncomfortable and can interfere with your ability to eat food and function in your everyday life, but also because of serious complications that can occur.

Over time, untreated, frequent acid reflux can  damage your esophagus, and potentially a precancerous change in your esophagus called Barrett’s esophagus. 

Prevention and Risks of Acid Reflux and Heartburn 

While it’s possible to treat acid reflux and heartburn symptoms, you can also prevent it.

The simplest way to prevent heartburn is to stop eating foods that trigger your symptoms.

Common foods that can result in heartburn include: 

  • Spicy foods
  • Citrus 
  • Tomato products
  • Onions
  • Fatty food
  • Fried food
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee 
  • Alcohol 
  • Carbonated drinks 
  • Large meals 
  • Peppermint

If you frequently experience heartburn, it’s important to see a doctor, who can help you figure out the cause and manage your symptoms with lifestyle and dietary changes, medication, a medical procedure, or both.

Acid reflux, if left untreated, can damage your esophagus and lead to precancerous changes in the esophagus, which is called Barrett’s esophagus. 

Are you experiencing acid reflux symptoms? Chat with a doctor today for just $23.

Chat Now

When to See a Doctor

Your heartburn may go away on its own, but if your indigestion symptoms persist or you experience severe heartburn, your health care provider may want to look into the underlying cause to help find a treatment that helps you manage the symptoms.

Talk to your provider or a K doctor if you experience any of the following: 

  • Heartburn more than twice a week 
  • Symptoms that don’t go away when you take over-the-counter medication 
  • Persistent nausea, vomiting, or difficulty swallowing
  • Weight loss due to difficulty eating

If you’re experiencing heart attack symptoms such as severe chest pain or pressure, or your chest pain is accompanied by pain in your jaw or arms, go to the emergency department or call 911 right away.

How K Health Can Help 

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes.

K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does acid reflux last?
Acid reflux symptoms can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Usually, acid reflux symptoms go away after your body fully digests your food (or if you take medication to help manage your symptoms). Talk to your health care provider if your heartburn symptoms are bothering you or interfering with your daily life.
Can heartburn occur without acid reflux?
Heartburn and acid reflux go hand in hand. Symptoms of heartburn, including a painful feeling behind your breastbone and sometimes a sour taste in your mouth, occur when acid from your stomach enters the esophagus.
Is acid reflux the same thing as GERD?
Acid reflux can cause heartburn symptoms in anyone. If you experience heartburn as a result of acid reflux frequently, and your symptoms don’t go away with medication, it’s possible you have GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. If you think you may have GERD, talk to your doctor.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.