Heartburn and GERD – Know the Difference


It’s likely you’ve experienced heartburn before. It can be a painful reminder of that cup of coffee you had in the morning or that spicy tomato sauce you had at lunch. Sometimes, heartburn can actually be GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) – do you know the difference?

Almost everyone experiences heartburn once in a while, but if it happens often, it could be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. “Heartburn describes a symptom, which is a burning or aching type sensation in the area of your stomach located just south of your breastbone,” says Christopher Chai, MD, MPH, a family medicine physician at Renown Medical Group – Double R.

According to Dr. Chai, “While heartburn is a symptom, GERD describes a process when stomach acid squirts up out of your stomach and into your esophagus, which has several causes.”

Causes of GERD

Processes that are temporary:

  • Foods:
    • Fatty foods
    • High amounts of simple carbs
    • Tomato-based foods
    • Hot sauce
  • Infections
    • Viral infections of the stomach & intestines, i.e. the “stomach flu”
  • Lifestyle
    • Short-term stress/anxiety

Processes that are typically more long term:

  • Ulcers
  • Bacterial infection of the stomach with H. pylori
  • Chronic use of some pain medications such as Ibuprofen or Naproxen
  • Long-term stress/anxiety
  • Anatomical changes, such as hiatal hernias

“Symptoms of Heartburn/GERD may be relieved with using over the counter medication (TUMS, Pepto-Bismol), eating peppermint or ginger or drinking teas with these herbs, drinking club soda flavored with your favorite fruit, or by eating crackers,” says Dr. Chai. “On the other hand, some people with GERD may require prescription medication, depending on the underlying causes.”

Seeking Help for GERD

When is it time to see your primary care provider? “Some indications to seek medical help are when the symptoms have lasted for more than a few days, if you are unable to keep down food or drink whether due to nausea or vomiting, if your symptoms are so severe that you may be dehydrated, if you vomit abnormal fluids (blood, dark green-colored, brown-colored, coffee-ground like material), if your weight drops significantly, or if you start to have bloody or dark black stools,” says Dr. Chai.


Dr. Chai goes on to say, “GERD is typically diagnosed through a thorough patient history as well as physical exam. In certain cases, a primary care provider may need to perform further testing or refer patients to a gastroenterologist — a specialist for conditions related to the esophagus, stomach, intestines and liver.”

“While cures for GERD depend on the underlying causes,” says Dr. Chai, “there are things you can do proactively to help reduce the symptoms of heartburn and GERD. It can be as simple as watching what you eat, or increasing the amount of fiber and water in your diet to keep things ‘flowing.’ Lastly, prevention of these symptoms can also be geared toward working on stress-relieving techniques, such as: deep breathing, regular exercise, restful sleep, prayer or meditation, and yoga, tai chi, or Pilates.”

Talk to Your Doctor

If you have concerns about heartburn or GERD, Renown Medical Group primary care physicians can help. Our doctors coordinate each patient’s medical care including checkups, immunizations, referrals to specialists, lab work, X-ray & imaging and hospital admissions.

Both new and established patients can see a Renown Medical Group professional, Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with Friday hours varying at our locations throughout Reno, Sparks, Carson City, Fernley, Fallon and Silver Springs.

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