Six Signs Your Heartburn Could Be Something More Serious
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That burning, uncomfortable sensation in your chest? It’s probably heartburn. Heartburn is a very common ailment that affects many people for many reasons. It occurs when digestive acid escapes the stomach and irritates the delicate lining of the esophagus.
Usually, it’s the result of eating certain foods, or simply overeating, and can be treated with over-the-counter antacids. But sometimes, heartburn is a symptom of bigger problems, that require other solutions. Here’s when to call a doctor:
Frequent/constant heartburn or heartburn everyday
If you have frequent or constant heartburn (more than twice a week or heartburn everyday), you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle that connects the esophagus and the stomach. If you have constant heartburn, you should schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist.
When working properly, the LES serves as a barrier that prevents digestive acid from the stomach from leaking into the esophagus. However, if the LES is weakened or malfunctioning, stomach acid can reach the esophagus and cause repeated bouts of heartburn. Over time, GERD may damage your esophagus, or lead to a serious complication called Barrett’s esophagus. In Barrett’s esophagus, repeated exposure to stomach acid causes changes to esophageal cells. These damaged cells can transform into esophageal adenocarcinoma, a potentially fatal cancer.
If GERD is suspected, your doctor may perform an endoscopy, a procedure in which a lighted scope is inserted into the esophagus, to examine the digestive tract.
If you are experiencing severe abdominal pain or bloating in addition to heartburn, you may be suffering from gastritis. Gastritis is inflammation of the stomach lining and may be caused by bacteria, infection, chronic vomiting, or excessive use of alcohol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen. An endoscopy will reveal the extent of the damage to your stomach lining.
Hiccup or cough
A persistent cough or hiccup may be a sign of a hiatal hernia, a condition in which part of the stomach slips through a hole in the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle between the chest and the abdomen that plays a crucial role in breathing: when your diaphragm contracts, it inflates your lungs, allowing you to inhale. It has a small opening through which the esophagus passes. If the stomach slips through this opening, it can cause severe heartburn, in addition to chest or abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, or shortness of breath.
If you find that it is difficult or painful to swallow in addition to suffering from heartburn, you may have esophagitis. Esophagitis is inflammation of esophageal tissue, that is often caused by GERD. If esophagitis is suspected, your doctor may order an endoscopy to assess the damage to your esophageal lining.
Nausea or vomiting
Nausea and vomiting may be signs of GERD, hiatal hernia, or esophagitis. Regurgitation of the stomach’s contents may occur as a complication of any of these conditions. This regurgitation often results in a “sour taste” that causes some patients to feel nauseated or lose their appetite. Extreme nausea or vomiting may also be a sign of a serious medical emergency – a heart attack.
Severe chest pain or pressure
If you experience severe chest pain or pressure, especially in combination with pain in the jaw, neck, or back, nausea and vomiting, or difficulty breathing, seek medical help immediately. You may be having a heart attack.
Heartburn is a common annoyance that is usually harmless, but it could be a sign of a bigger medical problem. If you have constant heartburn or its interfering with your daily life, contact your doctor to discuss treatment options or request further testing.