Symptoms of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

GERD most often produces heartburn, indigestion (discomfort in the upper abdomen, nausea, and sometimes vomiting), and regurgitation of undigested food from the stomach into the esophagus and mouth.

Acid from the stomach can even regurgitate into organs connected to the esophagus, such as the larynx, trachea, and lungs. This acid exposure can cause voice changes such as hoarseness, a chronic cough, episodes of asthma, or pain behind the sternum bone that resembles a heart attack. In some cases people with GERD experience these symptoms instead of heartburn and regurgitation, making diagnosis and treatment more difficult.

The chest pain associated with an intense episode of heartburn can feel like a heart attack. If you think you are having a heart attack, seek medical assistance immediately. Much of the damage done by a heart attack occurs in the first hour. Therefore, waiting to see if chest pain is due to heartburn could prove fatal.

How can you distinguish between a heart attack and GERD symptoms? Your chest pain is more likely to be heartburn if it is accompanied by a bitter or acid taste in your mouth or other symptoms such as belching and difficulty swallowing, and if the pain worsens when you lie down or bend over and improves when you take an antacid.

But if the pain is accompanied by a cold sweat, a fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness and the pain radiates down one or both arms, there's a good chance you're having a heart attack. Again, if you have any doubt about the cause of your chest pain, you should err on the side of caution and call 911 immediately, chew an aspirin, and lie down until an ambulance arrives.

Diagnosis of GERD

To diagnose GERD, your doctor will perform an upper endoscopy as well as other tests to measure the motility and pH (acid concentration) of your esophagus.

Publication Review By: H. Franklin Herlong, M.D.

Published: 24 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 07 Jan 2015