Heartburn is usually the unfortunate, but temporary, consequence of a spicy meal or other dietary choice. But when heartburn returns repeatedly, it may be a symptom of a potentially serious health problem.
Knowing what triggers your heartburn is important to avoid or reduce acid reflux. It’s also important to recognize the symptoms that indicate your heartburn is more than a fleeting reaction to what you just ate or drank.
Heartburn can be a symptom of potentially severe esophageal conditions, so if the frequency and intensity of your heartburn episodes increase, you’ll want to get medical help.
This article reviews the symptoms, causes, and treatment of mild to more serious cases of heartburn.
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid moves from your stomach into your esophagus and irritates the lining of the esophagus.
Usually, after you drink or swallow food, a small muscular ring called the “lower esophageal sphincter (LES)” closes to prevent stomach acid from entering the esophagus. If the sphincter doesn’t close tightly, the result may be acid reflux.
Some of the factors that cause the LES to weaken or lose its shape include:
- excess alcohol consumption, causing the LES to relax too much and, over time, damaging the LES
- medications, including:
- overeating or having obesity, which puts excess pressure on the LES
- certain foods, especially those with high fat content
Chronic heartburn may be a symptom of GERD
When heartburn becomes a chronic difficulty, it could be a symptom of a condition called “gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).”
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, you may want to consider seeing a doctor and getting a possible evaluation for GERD if lifestyle and dietary changes don’t stop heartburn episodes or if you need to take heartburn-relieving over-the-counter medications at least twice a week.
You may want to talk with a doctor if there are other heartburn symptoms that could indicate damage may be ongoing, including:
- choking or coughing due to a feeling of acid in the chest
- difficulty swallowing
- vomiting or coughing up blood
- weight loss
Occasional bouts of heartburn are unlikely to cause serious complications. Instead, heartburn can cause discomfort and may make sleeping or lying flat difficult.
When GERD is present, some of the more severe complications include:
Esophagitis is inflammation of the esophagus and a possible cause of ulcers or bleeding. The
Inflammation and irritation of the esophageal lining can cause the esophagus to narrow. Esophageal stricture can make swallowing more difficult and lead to complications, ranging from choking to malnourishment from reduced food consumption.
Barrett’s esophagus is an uncommon condition, affecting an estimated
Barrett’s esophagus can also lead to a type of cancer called “esophageal adenocarcinoma.”
Lifestyle and dietary changes can sometimes be enough to relieve or prevent heartburn episodes. You may also need medications to help reduce your symptoms.
Heartburn and the overproduction of stomach acid are usually responses to the foods and beverages you consume. Avoiding triggers is the key to reducing heartburn episodes.
Your trigger foods and drinks may be different than those that bother someone else, but among the more common heartburn triggers are:
- greasy foods and high fat foods, including whole fat dairy products
- spicy foods
Other helpful lifestyle tips to reduce or prevent heartburn include:
- maintaining a moderate weight to reduce pressure on the LES
- quitting smoking, if you smoke — smoking not only weakens the LES but can further irritate the lining of your esophagus
- sleeping with your upper body slightly elevated, especially if you consumed a possible heartburn trigger or are going to sleep within a few hours after eating
- Antacids (Mylanta, Rolaids, Tums): Antiacids change the nature of your stomach acid to make it less irritating.
- H2 blockers (Tagamet, Pepcid): H2 blockers reduce the volume of stomach acid in your system.
- Proton pump inhibitors (Prevacid, Nexium, Prilosec): Proton pump inhibitors also reduce the amount of stomach acid, but they’re more powerful than H2 blockers and aren’t designed for immediate heartburn relief.
Does drinking water help relieve heartburn?
Drinking water can help dilute the stomach acid in your system. A
Other beverages, such as herbal teas and plant-based milks, may also be helpful. Ideally, you may want to avoid carbonated drinks and those that are especially acidic, such as fruit juices.
Heartburn can be either a nuisance after a heavy meal or the first symptom of a more serious condition.
For many people, avoiding foods and beverages that trigger heartburn is the easiest way to prevent the pain and discomfort of acid reflux.
Other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and maintaining a moderate weight, can also help. If your efforts to curb heartburn episodes are ineffective, and you start to experience more frequent and more intense difficulties, you may want to talk with a doctor soon.
Heartburn is a common symptom of GERD, which, in turn, can be a risk factor for more severe medical concerns.