If you’ve ever enjoyed a big, delicious meal only to be met with an unwelcome, fiery sensation in your chest, you’ve experienced heartburn. It’s a common issue (about one in five people experience heartburn on a weekly basis), but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable. As we begin the season of holiday feasts, let’s break down the basics of heartburn – what it is, what causes it, how to treat it, and when it’s time to visit your doctor for more answers.
What is Heartburn?
Heartburn is a painful, burning feeling in your chest, usually just behind your breastbone. Despite the name, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart. It occurs when stomach acid rises back up into the esophagus. It often happens after eating and might get worse when you lie down or bend over.
Most people experience heartburn occasionally and it’s rarely cause for concern. Some patients experience heartburn frequently and have more severe symptoms, which could indicate a more serious medical condition.
What Does Heartburn Feel Like?
Most patients report heartburn as a painful, burning sensation in the center of their chest. You may also experience:
- A bitter, acidic, or salty taste in the mouth or throat
- Trouble swallowing
- A feeling of food “stuck” in your throat
- Coughing or hoarseness
- Discomfort that gets worse when you lie down or bend over
Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.
What Causes Heartburn?
At the end of your esophagus, there’s a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) that opens to let food into your stomach and closes to stop stomach acids from coming back up. Sometimes, the LES doesn’t close all the way or opens too often, allowing acid to creep up into your esophagus. This is what causes the discomfort known as heartburn. But what causes this valve to falter, and who is more likely to experience heartburn?
Several factors contribute to heartburn:
- Diet: Foods and drinks like citrus, spicy foods, onions, tomato sauce, chocolate, and caffeine can trigger heartburn. Fizzy drinks and alcohol also contribute to this discomfort.
- Overeating: Large meals can put pressure on the valve, causing acid to escape into the esophagus.
- Lying down after eating: This can make it easier for acid to sneak back up.
- Certain medications: Some prescription and over-the-counter medicines can aggravate heartburn.
- Smoking: This habit can relax the valve at the end of the esophagus, making it easier for acid to escape.
As for who is at risk, heartburn doesn’t discriminate, but certain groups of people may experience it more frequently:
- Pregnant women: Increased hormones and pressure on the stomach from the growing baby can lead to heartburn.
- Older adults: As we age, our digestive system can become a bit less efficient.
- Overweight individuals: Extra weight can put more pressure on the stomach.
- Smokers: As mentioned, smoking affects the functioning of the esophageal valve.
- People with certain medical conditions: Those with a hiatal hernia, gastritis, or other acute and chronic gastrointestinal disorders.
When to See Your Doctor
Occasional heartburn is common and usually not a cause for concern. But if you’re experiencing heartburn more than twice a week, it might be a sign of a more serious condition like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Other red flags include difficulty swallowing, ongoing nausea or vomiting, unexplained weight loss, or symptoms that aren’t relieved by over-the-counter medications. If you’re dealing with any of these, it’s time to give your doctor a visit.
Intense heartburn is commonly mistaken for a heart attack, as some of the symptoms can feel very similar. According to the CDC, symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Chest discomfort that feels like pressure, squeezing, tightening, or fullness.
- Feeling weak, light-headed, dizzy or faint.
- Pain or discomfort that radiates to the jaw, neck, arms, and/or shoulders.
- Shortness of breath
If you ever suspect a heart attack, call 911 immediately.
How to Treat Heartburn
Many people find relief with over-the-counter medications like antacids, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors. These can reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes or neutralize the acid already there. But treatment isn’t just about medication. Lifestyle changes can be a huge help. Eating smaller, more frequent meals, avoiding late-night snacks, elevating your head while sleeping, and staying upright after eating can all make a big difference. And of course, watching what you eat and drink might keep heartburn at bay.
While heartburn can be a bit of a nuisance, understanding what causes it and how to treat it can make a world of difference. Remember, we’re always here to help and answer any questions you might have. Don’t let heartburn put a damper on your day – we’re just a visit away at Urgent Care of Fairhope!