Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, affects people of all ages. But while many people have the condition, few truly understand it.
That’s because the term “GERD” is often used interchangeably with “heartburn” and “acid reflux.” Although these conditions can have common symptoms, the conditions aren’t the same.
GERD occurs when the muscle at the end of a person’s esophagus doesn’t close as it should. When that happens, the contents of the stomach leaks backward (or refluxes) into the esophagus, often causing an uncomfortable burning sensation.
Someone experiencing GERD may have multiple symptoms, including heartburn, the taste of stomach acid in the throat, a dry cough, asthma symptoms, difficulty swallowing or nausea.
Occasionally experiencing these symptoms is common, but if you’re having one or more symptoms more than twice a week, talk with your medical provider about whether GERD might be the cause.
The Difference Between GERD and Acid Reflux
Acid reflux refers to when your esophageal valve doesn’t close properly and stomach contents reflux backward.
GERD is a medical condition that occurs when you’re frequently experiencing acid reflux, usually defined as two or more episodes of acid reflux per week.
Occasional episodes of acid reflux (and the resulting heartburn) can be treated using over-the-counter (OTC) medication; however, if your symptoms become frequent, they can impact your quality of life and your health. If you are having symptoms more than two times per week you may have GERD and should seek the advice of your physician.
While GERD may seem like a simple annoyance, it can cause bigger problems if left untreated.
When left untreated, GERD can lead to other severe medical issues, including esophagitis, esophageal stricture, respiratory issues and Barrett’s esophagus. Of these conditions, Barrett’s esophagus is the most serious and can develop into cancer.
If your medical provider believes you may have GERD, additional testing—endoscopy or biopsy—may be ordered to take a look at your esophagus.
Once a diagnosis is confirmed, treatment options will vary depending on the specific symptoms you’re experiencing and how severe they are. In many cases, OTC or prescription medications and lifestyle changes can provide relief.
Your medical provider may recommend that you lose weight, quit smoking and avoid eating within a few hours of bedtime. You may also be told to avoid foods such as chocolate, coffee or alcohol, which can trigger acid reflux.
If you are requiring GERD medication on a daily basis, or if medications aren’t resolving your symptoms adequately, then surgery or other procedures may be offered to help treat your GERD. Many patients with GERD also have an anatomic condition called a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia is a term used to describe a weakness in the diaphragm that leads to a portion of the stomach itself slipping up into the chest. Surgery for GERD typically involves repairing the hiatal hernia and recreating a valve between the esophagus and stomach to limit reflux from the stomach back into the esophagus. Surgery for GERD is typically performed in a minimally invasive fashion requiring only tiny incisions using laparoscopic or robotic surgery approaches.