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Everything You Need to Know About Heartburn

Everything you need to know about heartburn

Heartburn is a very common problem – most people have experienced this at some time in their life. It tends to happen after eating, when you’re lying down, or at night. And for many, it is a weekly or even daily occurrence.

Having heartburn regularly is problematic due to the long-term effects. It’s ok to suffer from heartburn once in a while, but if it has become a part of your life, it’s time to do something about it before it causes problems.

What is heartburn?

Acid reflux happens when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the valve that connects your esophagus to your stomach, relaxes and allows stomach acid to leak into the esophagus. It causes that familiar burning sensation and chest pain known as heartburn.

Acid reflux that occurs more than twice a week can cause damage to your esophagus and needs to be treated with a doctor’s help. When acid reflux causes damage to the esophagus, it becomes gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Over time, unmanaged GERD can cause changes to the lining of the esophagus making it red and thickened. This is called Barrett’s esophagus.

Barrett’s esophagus increases your risk for esophageal cancer. Not everyone with GERD will develop Barrett’s esophagus, and people with Barret’s may not develop cancer. Managing your acid reflux can lower your chances of both.

What are the symptoms of heartburn / acid reflux / GERD?

The main symptom of heartburn is the sensation of burning in your chest that might last for a few minutes or as long as a few hours. It usually happens after eating and can be worse at night.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • Chest pain that feels similar to angina or heart pain
  • Note: If you have chest pain, do not assume it is heartburn – especially if it happens
  • with jaw or arm pain or shortness of breath. These could be signs of a heart attack.
  • You should seek medical attention immediately if you have symptoms like those.
  • Trouble swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • Regurgitation of food or sour liquid
  • Nausea
  • Coughing
  • Laryngitis
  • Asthma
  • Sleep disruption

What are the risk factors for frequent heartburn?

Certain conditions and lifestyle factors may make you more likely to have frequent heartburn, like:

  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity
  • Hiatal hernia
  • Delayed stomach emptying
  • Connective tissue disorders
  • Smoking
  • Eating large or fatty meals
  • Eating late at night
  • Eating trigger foods
  • Drinking alcohol, carbonated drinks, or coffee
  • Certain medications

When should I call my doctor about heartburn?

Occasional heartburn can usually be treated with over-the-counter medications, but when it’s frequent, severe, or affecting your health, it’s important to see a doctor. Leaving frequent heartburn untreated can lead to more serious health conditions. Talk to your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Frequent symptoms
  • Severe symptoms
  • A need to take over-the-counter medications twice a week or more
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weight loss because of difficulty eating

How is heartburn diagnosed?

Heartburn is not actually a medical diagnosis – it’s what we call the symptom of acid leaking into the esophagus. When heartburn happens regularly, it may be diagnosed as GERD.

Your doctor might recommend testing to determine if your heartburn is caused by GERD, including:

X-ray – You may need to drink a special liquid that coats the lining of your digestive tract first to make the shape of your esophagus, stomach, and upper intestine more visible.

Endoscopy – Your doctor may insert a thin tube with a camera down your throat to view inside your esophagus and stomach. Small tissue samples can be taken at the same time if needed.

Ambulatory acid probe tests – This test involves placing an acid monitor in your esophagus to record when you have acid reflux and how long it lasts.

Esophageal motility testing – This test measures the movement and pressure in your esophagus.

How is heartburn treated?

Over-the-counter medications that reduce or neutralize stomach acid are usually the first treatment for heartburn. If they don’t help, or if you need to take them too often, your doctor may recommend prescription medications. Common over-the-counter medications include:

Antacids – Tums, Mylanta, and Maalox are all antacids. These help neutralize stomach acid, providing fast relief. They can ease the burning feeling, but they can’t heal the damage caused by acid reflux.

H2-blockers – These reduce stomach acid to provide longer-lasting relief but aren’t as fast-acting as antacids. Famotidine (Pepcid) and cimetidine (Tagamet HB) are common H2 blockers.

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) – These are not fast-acting, but they reduce stomach acid and help heal the esophageal tissue. Common PPIs are omeprazole (Prilosec OTC), esomeprazole (Nexium), and lansoprazole (Prevacid).

How can I prevent heartburn?

Sometimes, you can make changes to your diet or lifestyle that can help you prevent mild heartburn. However, if your symptoms are severe, don’t wait to call your doctor.

For occasional mild heartburn:

  • Avoid food and drinks known to cause heartburn, like chocolate, caffeine, and fried
  • foods
  • Eat smaller meals, slowly
  • Eat more fiber
  • Don’t lie down after eating – wait 2-3 hours
  • Don’t eat 3-4 hours before bed
  • If you have nighttime heartburn, raise the head of your bed
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes
  • Don’t smoke

For some people, over-the-counter medications and lifestyle changes are all they need to stop their heartburn. But for those that may have GERD, those things may not be enough. For them, seeing a doctor is the best step to getting the correct diagnosis and treatment.

Don’t suffer from uncomfortable heartburn any longer – schedule an appointment today!

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