Your stomach acid has the same acidity as battery acid. The only reason you survive is because the stomach is built to handle this. But the esophagus isn't, and when stomach acid backs into it, you get that painful burning sensation just below the breastbone. This is heartburn; it is normal.

But then it starts happening 2 or 3 times per week and lasts a few months. You think you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), but self-diagnosis is a shaky proposition. How can you gauge the seriousness of your problem?

What you need is a step-by-step process that helps you understand everything from acid reflux symptoms to acid reflux treatment:

1. Lifestyle. The moment you notice your heartburn symptoms either becoming more frequent or not subsiding, ask yourself a few questions:

Do I smoke?
Do I eat fatty foods?
Am I eating too much food?
Am I overweight?
Do I exercise or lie down after eating?

If the answer is yes to any or all, you are engaging in activity that, while it does not caused acid reflux, will worsen acid reflux. Try to curtail your bad habits. If the reflux goes away, you may have normal, mild heartburn.

2. Symptoms. But heartburn is only one symptom of GERD. There are 3 others:

Difficult swallowing
Water brash

If you have any of these for a prolonged period of time, you could have GERD. But it is also true that GERD sufferers don't experience symptoms. This is because they aren't sensitive to acid; in other words, they reflux without noticing it.

3. Doctors. Each year in the United States, 4.6 million people discuss GERD with a doctor. This is smart decision: GERD can lead to serious problems. The first step is to see your primary care provider, who may suggest a referral to a gastroenterologist.

In either case, prepare for your visit by keeping a detailed symptom diary. This should help determine which of three testing methods, if any, you will be given: endoscopy, barium esophagram, esophageal pH monitoring.

Also, ask your doctor to explain acid reflux treatment options. Here are the 4 most common ones:

Antacids: neutralize stomach acid.
Mucosal protective agents: protect the lining of the esophagus.
Promotility agents: cause the stomach to empty faster.
Acid-suppressive agents: reduce the amount of acid the stomach makes.

Lastly, understand that there is a surgery option for acid reflux treatment, but it is typically a last resort. Above all, the important thing to remember is that only your doctor can know what is best for you.