Heartburn: The Gift that Keeps On Giving
Most people will experience some degree of heartburn in their lifetimes. But don’t let the name fool you; heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It is simply a painful burning sensation, caused by a backup (or reflux) of acidic stomach content in the esophagus, just below or behind the breastbone. The acid irritates the esophagus, thus causing the burning sensation. Heartburn is usually an occasional annoyance. However, some people experience frequent, long-lasting heartburn – a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
You can reduce the risk of heartburn by avoiding foods or beverages that often trigger reflux. These include alcohol, spicy foods, citrus fruits/juices, chocolate, and carbonated or caffeinated drinks. Eating smaller meals will also help, as stomach material is more likely to back up in an overly full stomach. Obesity, smoking, and stress are also known to increase the risk of heartburn.
There are also many over-the-counter medications to treat varying degrees of heartburn:
- Antacids neutralize stomach acidity and are commonly used to relieve minor symptoms of heartburn, as well as acid indigestion and upset/sour stomach. Brand examples: TUMS, Mylanta, Rolaids, Maalox, Pepto-Bismol, and Alka-Seltzer
- H2 blockers (a.k.a. H2-receptor antagonists) are used to treat mild symptoms of heartburn by preventing the chemical histamine2 from signaling the stomach to produce acid. A lower amount of stomach acid reduces the risk of heartburn, GERD, Peptic ulcer disease, and dyspepsia. Brand examples: Pepcid AC and Zantac
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are the most potent blockers of stomach acid production and are used for the long-term treatment of chronic heartburn (caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease), as well as dyspepsia, peptic ulcers, stress gastritis, and more. Brand examples: Prilosec, Prevacid, Nexium, Zurcal, and Aciphex
To learn more about gastroesophageal reflux disease, click here.