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What are the Differences Between Frequent Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and GERD?

The different heartburn classifications can be confusing. That’s why it’s important to understand the differences between heartburn, frequent heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD to best diagnose symptoms and seek prevention.


Heartburn refers to a burning discomfort that’s generally felt from the chest just behind the breast bone. This sensation results when harsh stomach acid comes in contact with and irritates the lining of the esophagus – the tube-like structure that connects the mouth to the stomach.

There are varying degrees of heartburn one can experience. Experts tend to use three categories to describe heartburn frequency: episodic, frequent, and persistent. 

On the less severe end of the spectrum is episodic or occasional heartburn, which refers to infrequent flare-ups that are fairly predictable.

Heartburn that occurs two or more days a week is referred to as frequent heartburn. If you’re experiencing symptoms this regularly, you may want to consider a more proactive approach to treating the problem rather than treating your symptoms each time they occur.

There are a number of heartburn medications available to treat frequent heartburn. A proton pump inhibitor, or PPI, like Prilosec OTC, works by directly blocking many of the stomach’s acid producing pumps. PPIs may take 1-4 days for full effect, but they could provide zero heartburn* for 24 hours with just one pill a day.

Acid Reflux

Another commonly confused and highly searched term is acid reflux. This is the term used to describe the action of the stomach’s acidic contents being pushed up into the esophagus. Therefore, acid reflux is the action that causes the symptom.


Separate and often confused with other categories of heartburn is gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. This digestive disorder is caused by acid contents of the stomach regularly backing up into the esophagus. The added presence of regurgitation, refluxing, difficulty swallowing, chronic cough, hoarseness, or a feeling of a lump in the throat differentiates this digestive symptom-set from heartburn, frequent heartburn, or even persistent heartburn conditions. The difference is that GERD is a disease, and heartburn is its most common symptom. If you think you might have GERD, contact your doctor to discuss your symptoms.