Acid Reflux Vs Heartburn: What's The Difference?

Acid reflux and heartburn are often used interchangeably, but they aren't exactly the same thing. Rather, one is the cause of the other. Here's what you need to know about each (and why acid reflux isn't always a problem).

Acid reflux happens when the valve between your esophagus and your stomach doesn't seal shut properly, which leads to your stomach contents splashing back out of the stomach and into the esophagus. Unpleasant to picture, yes. But you may have this happen, and not notice any symptoms of discomfort. Often, this mix of acid, digestive juices, enzymes, and food don't get very far — in fact, many people have up to an hour a day of this reflux and don't even notice (via the Cleveland Clinic)

However, when you feel heartburn — that burning sensation under your sternum that occurs after eating or when lying down — it is a symptom of acid reflux. You may also notice a bitter or acidic taste in your mouth, and the pain may feel worse when lying down or bent over (via the Mayo Clinic).

How can you stop acid reflux before it becomes heartburn?

Certain foods can make heartburn more likely: Often, spicy foods are the culprit, but more innocuous foods like chocolate, peppermint, citrus products, or onions can also be at fault. Large meals and alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of heartburn, too (via the Mayo Clinic).

You can ease or prevent heartburn symptoms caused by acid reflux by making lifestyle changes, including eating smaller meals and decreasing the amount of fat and spicy food that you consume. Keep track of what you're eating as well as when symptoms flare up. This will allow you to identify trigger foods, like chocolate, that make your heartburn worse. Weight loss if you are overweight may also ease symptoms, as will quitting smoking if you're a smoker (via Healthline). 

If you have heartburn from acid reflux two or more times per week, that may be an indicator that you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a much more severe version of acid reflux that may require medical intervention (via the Mayo Clinic). Always talk to your healthcare provider about ongoing discomfort and symptoms.