Difference Between Heartburn and Acid Reflux


We are all familiar with the burning sensation that we often feel after a large meal. While this feeling is certainly uncomfortable and is often compared to someone squeezing the heart in the palm of their hand, the pain you feel from heartburn and acid reflux is the result of bile and acid making its way up your esophagus.

When digestion occurs, we expect that the process will be painless, but this is not always the case. Many people believe that acid reflux and heartburn are two interchangeable ailments, but in reality, they are both much different. Let’s take a moment to clear up the dissimilarities between the two common stomach pains.

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux takes place when the person begins to regurgitate their stomach acid and it travels up the esophagus. Some may confuse this for heartburn, but acid reflux is actually the cause of heartburn, not a similar ailment. Even though acid reflux can be quite unpleasant, a large percentage of those who experience it feel no pain as it is taking place.

Since acid reflux is merely a catalyst for heartburn and is not always the root cause for every instance that it occurs, it is important to distinguish the two. During a period when heartburn has begun to take place, the person will experience increased tightness in the chest, in addition to discomfort and pain.


Heartburn derives its name from the fact that sufferers typically report feeling as if their stomach acid is slowly eating away at their insides, especially their esophagus. While this may seem like an oversimplification of the ailment to some, this is exactly what is taking place.

Even though the vast majority of the population has experience acid reflux before, without falling victim to heartburn, there is no way to experience heartburn without also dealing with a bout of acid reflux at the same time. This is one of the most crucial differences between acid reflux and heartburn.

How Do They Differ?

The easiest way to remember this difference: acid reflux is the cause and heartburn is the effect. The acid reflux that you feel is considered to be the fire, while the heartburn is the smoke. When acid reflux begins to push all of your stomach acids further up the esophagus, the resulting pain that the person feels is the actual heartburn.

It is the body’s natural reaction to increased stomach acids, bile and assorted foodstuffs traveling to areas where they are not always welcome. Heartburn is the human body’s way of alerting its host to the damages that are taking place inside of them, a method for letting people know when it is time to alter their lifestyle or seek medical assistance.

Those who suffer from acid reflux on a constant basis may have a disease known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or simply acid reflux disease. Both of these terms are used to describe a person who suffers from chronic acid reflux’s condition. The onset of diseases related to acid reflux are often exacerbated by lifestyle choices that the person makes.

This includes their eating habits (including the foods they choose to eat and their overall acidity level), the amount of exercise that they receive on a daily basis, whether or not they are a smoker and any excessive food consumption.

It should also be noted that heartburn has very little to do with the actual heart itself, which is why the term can be so misleading to those who do not possess any sort of significant medical training. When heartburn takes place, it does the majority of its damage to the person’s digestive system and the heart itself is not placed at risk.

Treatment and Health Effects

Heartburn does not typically require the person who is experiencing it to seek medical attention, as long as it is not occurring on a consistent basis. All it takes to treat most cases of heartburn are some over the counter antacids and a concerted effort to avoid foods that are excessively spicy.

On the other hand, acid reflux is usually an indication that a much bigger problem is taking place and should be treated by a physician as soon as possible. Whereas heartburn only requires medical attention in instances where over the counter medications fail to provide or it is occurring more than once a week, acid reflux is considered to be the more serious ailment.

Acid reflux, when untreated, has more of an adverse impact on a person’s daily living. They will need to change their diet, quit smoking if they are addicted to tobacco, and lose weight in order to bring their acid reflux down to a comfortable level. In certain instances, the person may even need a surgical procedure if the acid reflux remains a chronic ailment following medical treatment.

Other serious damages that can be caused by acid reflux include erosion of the patient’s stomach lining, internal bleeding, the development of ulcers, and scarring. And while it may be a rare occurrence, there is also the risk that a person could develop cancer in their esophagus.

In the eyes of many, heartburn and acid reflux are the same ailment and those who know the differences often believe that heartburn is the more harmful medical condition over the long haul. In reality, one is to blame for the other and it is acid reflux that can lead to severe medical issues when untreated. Education is key when it comes to heartburn and acid reflux and a medical professional must be consulted if either condition persists over a long period of time.