Heartburn: Causes , Treatment and Prevention


What is heartburn?

Heartburn is a burning sensation in your chest that often occurs with a bitter taste in your throat or mouth. The symptoms of heartburn may get worse after you eat a large meal or when you’re lying down.

In general, you can successfully treat the symptoms of heartburn at home. However, if frequent heartburn makes it difficult to eat or swallow, your symptoms may be a sign of a more serious medical condition.

What causes heartburn?

Heartburn typically occurs when contents from the stomach back up into the esophagus. The esophagus is a tube that carries food and fluids from the mouth into the stomach.

Your esophagus connects to your stomach at a juncture known as the cardiac or lower esophageal sphincter. If the cardiac sphincter is functioning properly, it closes when food leaves the esophagus and enters the stomach.

In some people, the cardiac sphincter doesn’t function properly or it becomes weakened. This leads to contents from the stomach leaking back into the esophagus. Stomach acids can irritate the esophagus and cause symptoms of heartburn. This condition is known as reflux.

Heartburn can also be the result of a hiatal hernia. This happens when part of the stomach pushes through the diaphragm and into the chest.

Heartburn is also a common condition during pregnancy. When a woman is pregnant, the progesterone hormone can cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax. This allows stomach contents to travel into the esophagus, causing irritation.

Other health conditions or lifestyle choices can worsen your heartburn, including

  • smoking
  • being overweight or obese
  • consuming caffeine, chocolate, or alcohol
  • eating spicy foods
  • lying down immediately after eating
  • taking certain medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen

When should I see my doctor about heartburn?

Many people occasionally experience heartburn. However, you should contact your doctor if you experience heartburn more than twice per week or heartburn that doesn’t improve with treatment. This could be a sign of a more serious condition.

Heartburn often occurs alongside other gastrointestinal conditions, such as ulcers, which are sores in the lining of the esophagus and stomach, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. Contact your doctor if you have heartburn and develop:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • pain with swallowing
  • dark, tarry, or bloody stools
  • shortness of breath
  • pain that radiates from your back to your shoulder
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • sweating while having chest pain

Heartburn isn’t associated with a heart attack. However, many people that have heartburn believe they’re having a heart attack because the symptoms can be very similar. You may be having a heart attack if you have:

  • severe or crushing chest pain
  • difficulty breathing
  • jaw pain
  • arm pain

What are the treatment options for heartburn?

If you experience occasional heartburn, there are several home remedies and lifestyle changes that can help alleviate your symptoms. Lifestyle changes, such as maintaining a healthy weight, can help reduce your symptoms. You should also avoid:

  • lying down after meals
  • using tobacco products
  • consuming chocolate
  • consuming alcohol
  • consuming caffeinated drinks

Certain foods can increase the likelihood of experiencing heartburn. These include:

  • carbonated drinks
  • citrus fruits
  • tomatoes
  • peppermint
  • fried foods

Avoiding these foods can help decrease how often you experience heartburn.

If these treatments don’t improve your symptoms, you may need to see your doctor. Your doctor will review your medical history and ask you about your symptoms. Your doctor may also order several tests to find out what’s causing your heartburn. Tests may include:

  • an X-ray of the stomach or abdomen
  • an endoscopy to check for an ulcer or irritation of the esophagus or lining of the stomach, which involves passing a small tube equipped with a camera down your throat and into your stomach
  • at pH test to determine how much acid is in your esophagus

Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor will be able to provide you with treatment options to help reduce or eliminate your symptoms.

Medications for the treatment of occasional heartburn include antacids, H2 receptor antagonists to reduce stomach acid production, such as Pepcid, and proton pump inhibitors that block acid production, such as:

  • Prilosec
  • Prevacid
  • Protonix
  • Nexium

Although these medications can be helpful, they do have side effects. Antacids can cause constipation or diarrhea. Talk to your doctor about any medications you’re already taking to see if you’re at risk for any drug interactions.

What are the complications associated with heartburn?

Occasional heartburn isn’t typically a cause for concern. However, if you get this symptom frequently, you may have a serious health problem that requires treatment.

If you don’t get treatment for serious heartburn, you can develop additional health problems, such as an inflammation of the esophagus, which is called esophagitis, or Barrett’s esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus causes changes in the lining of the esophagus that can increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

Long-term heartburn can also affect your quality of life. See your doctor to determine a course of treatment if you find it difficult to carry on your daily life or are severely limited in your activities due to heartburn.

How can I prevent heartburn?

Follow these tips to prevent heartburn:

  • Avoid foods or activities that may cause your symptoms.
  • You can also take an over-the-counter medication, such as a chewable antacid tablet, before you eat to prevent heartburn before symptoms start.
  • Ginger snacks or ginger tea are also helpful home remedies that you can buy in many stores.
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle and avoid alcohol and tobacco.
  • Try to avoid snacking late at night. Instead, stop eating at least four hours before bedtime.
  • Rather than two or three large meals, eat smaller meals more frequently to ease the impact on your digestive system.
Note: Zentac (Ranitidine) is no longer supported for use by FDA

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