Have you ever felt a low burning sensation deep in your chest that has you reaching for the Tums or picking up some Mylanta on your way home from a particularly stressful day? Or had a particularly acidic burp after finishing a couple of extra spicy tacos? Chances are, you’ve experienced heartburn a few times in your life, and you’ve done one of three things when you feel heartburn symptoms coming on:

  • Let it pass
  • Take reactive measures as needed, such as an antacid
  • Take proactive measures to keep heartburn at bay (if you experience it frequently)

But heartburn is merely a symptom of a common condition called acid reflux, which occurs when stomach acid travels up your esophagus. Sometimes, the acid just sits there until your body is able to settle it back in your stomach and keep it there, but in more unpleasant cases, it can come all the way up into your mouth, causing an unpleasant taste, gagging, or vomiting.

Acid reflux occurs when the sphincter, or muscle, that closes off the entrance to the stomach from the esophagus does not remain properly closed. This can happen because the muscle has weakened or otherwise malfunctioned, thereby failing to keep stomach acid sealed inside. Those who find themselves experiencing heartburn at least two times a week may have Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, also known as GERD. Keep reading to learn when to go to the doctor for acid reflux.

Terrible heartburn or indigestion may have you asking, when to go to doctor for acid reflux

How is Acid Reflux Different from Heartburn and GERD?

The three terms all share similarities, but they are not interchangeable. The easiest way to know the difference is to remember that heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, and GERD is a disease based on how frequently a patient experiences acid reflux. A patient who notices that they have heartburn once or twice a year after particularly spicy meals or eating too much probably does not have GERD.

Similarly, someone who does have GERD may need to take preventative measures to keep regular instances of heartburn at a minimum, as opposed to someone without GERD who may be able to get away with just taking an over-the-counter antacid upon the onset of symptoms.

Those who suffer from heartburn and acid reflux may experience discomfort in the esophagus and stomach.

When Should You See a Doctor for Acid Reflux?

Typically, the rule of thumb would be to check in with a doctor about your acid reflux if you’re experiencing heartburn on a regular, weekly basis. While heartburn itself is a common symptom, dealing with it that frequently is much less common and may indicate more serious issues. In the section below, we’ll discuss some of the more severe symptoms to keep an eye out for, as these symptoms may warrant an immediate trip to the doctor or hospital.

Additionally, if you’re experiencing acid reflux that doesn’t seem to respond to typical over the counter medications, it may be time to see a doctor—or see your doctor again, if you’ve already spoken to them before—to see if additional testing is necessary or alternative options are available treatment-wise.

Now, many treatments for acid reflux are available over the counter, including some proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). Keep in mind that even though you don’t need a prescription for some of them, it’s still best to consult a physician before relying on them for long-term use, as many can cause unwanted side effects like diarrhea or constipation. Using a PPI for longer than two weeks has also been shown to raise your risk of heart attack, renal failure, and even dementia.

If the pain and discomfort from acid reflux spreads or moves, it may be a serious case of acid reflux.

Is It Bad to Leave Acid Reflux Untreated? How Do You Know if Your Acid Reflux is Serious?

Because acid reflux involves stomach acid being released into the softer, more sensitive tissues or your esophagus, unchecked reflux can lead to severe damage in those tissues. If you notice any of the GERD symptoms below, and they are not responding to treatments and medications you’ve been given for acid reflux or GERD, seek medical attention immediately:

  • Your pain shifts from its usual area to other areas in the abdomen. This can indicate ulcers or that the damage from the acid reflux is spreading rapidly.
  • Your weight is dramatically decreasing, and you cannot stop it.
  • You’re having difficulty swallowing or experiencing pain while eating.
  • You’re experiencing severe chest pain. It may even feel like you’re having a heart attack, but this is, in fact, a common symptom of GERD. Do not assume that chest pain is only from a GERD flare-up, though. It is always best to seek medical attention for chest pain, just in case.
  • You’re feeling weak, dizzy, confused, or faint. This can be from a severe GERD flare-up and can cause you to lose consciousness or even suffer from neurological damage if left untreated.

If GERD is left untreated long-term, even without experiencing the above symptoms, you may also develop a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus describes a condition where the cells within your food pipe change due to damage from stomach acid, which increases your risk of esophageal cancer.

Don’t Leave Acid Reflux Untreated

The long and short of it all is this: If you’re having heartburn on a regular, frequent basis, it’s time to talk to a doctor. Whether or not your condition is serious enough to warrant concerns about the above symptoms, your physician will still be able to offer advice on how to improve the quality of your life by decreasing the frequency and severity of the acid reflux. If you aren’t sure when to go to a doctor for acid reflux but are experiencing severe symptoms, find a doctor or emergency room near you.