Studies show that 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month, and that 25 million experience it on a daily basis. Heartburn, a burning pain behind the breastbone that radiates upward, is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In the United States, approximately 19 million people have GERD, which means that not everyone who experiences heartburn has GERD. So, how do you determine whether your symptoms are treatable with over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, or the sign of a much more serious problem?

GERD—according to the GERD Information Resource Center—has four symptoms: heartburn, regurgitation, difficulty swallowing, and water brash. Making the step from experiencing symptoms to scheduling a doctor’s appointment can be scary because you may learn something you’d rather not know. On the other hand, brushing off symptoms can allow them to worsen. Figuring out where to draw the line starts with these questions:

  • Do I have symptoms that occur two or more times per week?
  • Does heartburn wake me up at night?
  • Does it interupt my daily activities?
  • Do I only get temporary relief from OTC meds?
  • Do I feel full too soon after a meal?

If you answered yes to any of these, it’s time to see your doctor. However, people who are not very sensitive to acid may not experience acid reflux, which means they may have GERD without experiencing symptoms. There is, of course, no way you could know this without getting tests done. So next time you see your doctor, be sure to ask about this.

One way to treat heartburn is with lifestyle changes, which include eating less fatty foods, drinking less alcohol, elevating your bed head, and minimizing high-impact exercise. It’s possible that, as a result of experiencing mild heartburn, you’ve been making these changes without consciously telling yourself, “I need to quit drinking.” This is another sign that you may need to see your doctor.

Finally, once you commit to seeing your doctor, you should do a couple things to prepare for your visit. The first is to keep a diary that lists the symptoms you experienced, when you experienced them, what you did/ate at that time, and what you did to stop or relieve the pain. The second is to make a list of questions that will help you decide on diet, lifestyle, and medication changes. You can’t get answers without asking questions.