The acid in your stomach serves many purposes, such as breaking down the food you eat. In fact, your stomach acid could even dissolve some metals! It’s no wonder then that we feel like our chest is on fire when some of that acid escapes the stomach into our throat. But did you know there’s more to heartburn than meets the eye?
The burning sensation in the chest that we refer to as “heartburn” can be a symptom of something more serious. Heartburn is one of the main symptoms of two conditions that can affect your digestive system, but because they share symptoms, it can be hard to tell them apart.
The first condition is GERD, which stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease. GERD is a condition that occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back into the esophagus (a tube that connects your stomach and throat). If you suffer from mild heartburn two times a week or more, or severe heartburn more than once a week, you may have GERD.
Symptoms of GERD
- Chest pain
- Trouble swallowing
- Food or sour liquid coming up your throat
- Sensation of a lump in your throat
- Chronic cough
- Disrupted sleep
- New or worsening asthma
There are a few things that can increase your risk of developing GERD. These include obesity, smoking, eating large meals, eating late at night, and a diet high in fatty or fried foods. While heartburn can happen to anyone on occasion, GERD is more severe and usually requires medical management.
Thankfully, GERD can often be treated with over-the-counter medications and lifestyle changes. Antacids can help to relieve heartburn symptoms, and heartburn medications can help reduce or block acid production in the stomach. Avoiding trigger foods is another way to help manage GERD.
The second condition commonly associated with heartburn is Peptic Ulcer Disease or PUD. This condition occurs when painful sores or ulcers develop in the lining of the stomach or small intestines. Unlike GERD, PUD is less common and more serious.
Symptoms of PUD
- Gnawing or burning pain in the stomach
- Pain the gets better after eating or taking an antacid
- Weight loss
- Severe stomach pain
While many people think that ulcers develop due to stress or eating too much spicy food, that is incorrect. There are only two primary causes of Peptic Ulcer Disease. The first is H. Pylori bacteria. The second is excessive usage of medications called ‘NSAIDs’. Some brand names of NSAIDs include Advil and Motrin.
In addition to these causes, there are certain factors that may increase your risk of developing PUD. Smoking and drinking are two behaviors that can put you at a higher risk. If you have kidney, liver, or lung disease you could also be at an increased risk.
Unlike GERD, PUD usually requires medical intervention to ensure the sores or ulcers are treated and cleared up. The primary treatment for this condition is a combination of medications to help your stomach heal and limit acid production.
There is a lot of overlap in symptoms for these two conditions, so how do you tell them apart? There is a simple way to help determine whether you’re suffering from GERD or PUD. Symptoms of GERD usually occur in the chest. Meanwhile, symptoms of PUD usually occur in the stomach or abdomen.
Regardless of where your pain starts, it ends in your provider’s office. You may be able to find over-the-counter medications that help with your symptoms, but if you want to treat your medical condition and have long-term relief your provider is your best option. Not only can they make sure to diagnose you accurately, but they can also connect you to resources to help you with lifestyle changes and symptom management.
Many of us have a habit of ignoring things like heartburn and stomach pain and writing them off as part of life but they are signals from your body asking for help. Don’t ignore your body’s red flags. When your body is asking for help, talk to your provider.