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Acid Reflux vs Heartburn: What's the Difference?

Medically reviewed by Mia Dacumos, MD · Nephrology · Makati Medical Center

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated Nov 09, 2021

Acid Reflux vs Heartburn: What's the Difference?

Most people tend to use the terms acid reflux and heartburn interchangeably. However, did you know that there is actually a difference between acid reflux vs heartburn?

What is Acid Reflux?

Before getting to the difference between acid reflux vs heartburn, we first need to define what these conditions are.

The word “acid’ in acid reflux refers to the stomach acids that go backward into the esophagus. Ideally, the esophagus should only be a one-way tube, this means that anything you eat or drink should go from your mouth, down to your esophagus and into your stomach.

When reflux occurs, then it means that food and drink you consumed, along with stomach acids, go back up the esophagus. This happens because the esophageal sphincter, which acts as a one-way valve, is not functioning correctly. This could be due to various factors such as being obese or overweight, smoking, eating too much, etc.

If the stomach acids go up, then the esophagus starts to get irritated.  This results in pain and discomfort, as well as the burning sensation most people associate with acid reflux.

acid reflux vs heartburn

What is Heartburn?

Heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest. People often consider heartburn troublesome if they experience mild symptoms two or more days weekly, or if they have moderate or severe symptoms more than once weekly.

Heartburn can occur at any time, but it usually happens after eating. It can also be triggered if a person is lying down. Sometimes, people find it difficult to fall asleep if they’re experiencing heartburn.

In some cases, the symptoms of heartburn are similar to that of angina. This is why some people might mistake heartburn for a heart attack, and vice versa.

Heartburn in itself is not necessarily a serious problem. Millions of people all over the world experience heartburn each day. However, if a person experiences heartburn more than twice a week for an extended period of time, then it might be a symptom of GERD.

If this happens, it would be best to talk to a doctor about it, as repeated inflammation of the esophagus can cause serious health complications.

6 Herbal Medicines for Acid Reflux

What can you do about it?

Here are some things that you can do to lower your risk of acid reflux and heartburn:

Eat smaller meals

Eating smaller meals can help reduce the risk of acid reflux. One way of doing this is instead of eating 3 full meals per day, you can eat 6 smaller meals spread throughout the day.

Maintain a healthy weight

People who are obese or overweight tend to have a higher risk of acid reflux. This extra fat essentially “squeezes’ the stomach, causing more acid to go up the esophagus, and can make acid reflux worse, or even lead to GERD.

By keeping a healthy weight, you can relieve the pressure on your stomach and lower the chances of acid reflux.

Stop smoking

Smoking is another possible cause of acid reflux. One reason why this happens is that nicotine in cigarette smoke relaxes the esophageal sphincter, causing stomach acids to go up the esophagus.

This is also the reason why most smokers tend to suffer from acid reflux or GERD, and the symptoms only get worse the longer they smoke. Cigarette smoke also irritates the esophagus and causes additional inflammation.

It would be best to quit smoking as soon as possible in order to lower the risk of acid reflux as well as more serious problems associated with smoking.

Avoid drinking alcohol and coffee

Both alcohol and coffee have a relaxing effect on the esophageal sphincter. This means that if you drink alcohol and coffee, there’s a chance that it could trigger acid reflux.

The best way to prevent this from happening would be to avoid drinking alcohol and coffee entirely. If this is not possible, then try to drink less of these, especially if you are prone to acid reflux.

By following these tips, you can reduce your risk for heartburn, acid reflux, as well as GERD.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Mia Dacumos, MD

Nephrology · Makati Medical Center

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated Nov 09, 2021

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