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We Need to Talk About the Difference Between Heartburn, Acid Reflux and GERD

Have you ever eaten a slice of pizza and immediately felt a burning in your chest? Most likely you experienced heartburn. This is when those harsh stomach acids come in contact with the esophagus, causing it to become irritated. So you take a Tums or two and then you’re typically OK.

Then you eat some nachos, and you don’t just have heartburn – you also experience a hot, sour, acid taste in your throat. Most likely this is acid reflux, so you take some medication.

But for others, heartburn and acid reflux are only part of the problem. Some people may have GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). GERD is a digestive disease. Its symptoms include regurgitation, difficulty swallowing, chronic cough, hoarseness, nausea and a lump in the throat. Several treatments are available for GERD. However, not all of them are successful for everyone. My mom is one of those people.

She has battled GERD for about a decade now. She’s tried every medication that the hospital and gastrologists have prescribed. She had the recommended hiatal hernia surgery that is supposed to stop the acid from flowing into the esophagus.

A month ago she made two trips to the hospital, for a total of three weeks. She had several upper gastrointestinal endoscopies, a barium swallow, two CAT scans and an esophageal pH test. Each one showed a raw esophagus and a raw stomach. That’s when we understood that the word acid meant exactly that. The acid’s erosion had caused permanent, nonreversible damage.

Even though she had been receiving treatment all those years and had taken every medication they prescribed, she still ended up vomiting after every meal. And with every sip of water.

They put her on several different hospital diets, and none of them prevented the vomiting. So she stopped eating. She was tired of the pain in her stomach, chest and throat. She was tired of the burning sensation. But mostly she was tired of the nausea and vomiting.

So she asked that I share her story with others. She doesn’t want to see people wait to talk to their doctors about heartburn and acid reflux. She wants people to know that constant acid reflux that never goes away is one of the most painful things one can experience.

Not only are you uncomfortable but you no longer have control over your body and how it reacts to food and water. One would think that with all of the technological advances we’ve had that GERD would be something that is easily treated. Or at least successfully treated.

On the rare occasion when I wake up at night with the feeling of someone pouring acid down my throat (and yes, that’s how it feels), I have to sit up instantly because the fluid is making its way up my throat. And each time I pray I won’t go through that again.

I now keep heartburn medication and antacids on me at all times because I never know when it will happen. I’ve watched my mom choke on foods while denying herself of her favorite foods. I’ve heard her vomit from just drinking a few ounces of water. And I’ve watched her starve just to make the pain go away. I believe that speaks volumes on the pain that one with GERD goes through.

So if you know someone with GERD and you say, “oh, I get heartburn too,” or suggest that they “just take a pill,” remember it’s not always that simple. GERD is a disease. It is not a symptom.

Getty Image by Tharakorn

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