What to expect from heartburn

The uncomfortable symptoms of heartburn can last for two hours or longer, depending on the cause.

Mild heartburn that occurs after eating spicy or acidic food typically lasts until the food has been digested. Heartburn symptoms may also return several hours after they first appeared if you bend over or lie down.

Occasional heartburn that responds to at-home treatment is usually nothing to worry about.

But if you consistently get heartburn a few times a week or more, it can be a sign of an underlying condition requiring a doctor’s care. In this case, your heartburn will most likely continue to occur until the condition causing it is treated or managed.

Heartburn symptoms can include:

  • burning sensation in the chest or throat
  • coughing
  • stuffed nose
  • wheezing
  • trouble swallowing
  • sour taste in the mouth
  • being woken up out of sleep by a cough or gastric discomfort

If your heartburn isn’t the symptom of an underlying condition, you should be able to successfully treat it with over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as antacids, proton pump inhibitors, or H2 receptor antagonists.

You may also find relief from the following lifestyle changes:

  • Avoid lying down within two hours of eating. Instead, take a walk to help stimulate digestion.
  • Avoid eating any additional food until your heartburn has passed, especially spicy, acidic, or citrus foods.
  • If you have any specific food triggers, such as tomato-based foods, citrus, alcohol, coffee, or soda, avoid them while you have heartburn.
  • If you smoke, avoid cigarettes or other types of nicotine while you’re experiencing heartburn.
  • If heartburn bothers you at night, try elevating your upper body while you sleep. You can do this by using a special wedge pillow or elevating the head of the bed with blocks. Note: It’s not a good idea to prop yourself up with extra pillows to get this elevation. This can bend your body in such a way that it increases pressure on your stomach and can actually worsen your heartburn symptoms.
  • Wear loose clothing, especially around the waist. Constrictive clothing may make your heartburn worse.

If OTC medication or lifestyle changes don’t help your heartburn or if you experience heartburn frequently, talk to your doctor. They can help identify underlying causes for your heartburn and an appropriate treatment plan.

There are many ways you may be able to prevent occasional heartburn or reduce the frequency of chronic heartburn.

  • Identifying food triggers can help you eliminate or reduce heartburn. Food triggers may include garlic, onions, citrus foods, tomatoes and tomato products, alcohol, soda, and coffee.
  • Reducing your serving sizes at meals can help. Try to eat several mini-meals during the day rather than a few large ones.
  • Avoid eating late at night or right before bed.
  • Stop smoking cigarettes, if you smoke.
  • Being overweight or obese may increase your risk of having heartburn. Losing weight may help reduce heartburn.
  • Avoid lying down for at least two hours after eating.

If you have heartburn more than twice a week or if it interferes with your life, talk to your doctor. You may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Heartburn is a symptom of GERD.

Unlike occasional heartburn, GERD is defined by having heartburn or other reflux-related symptoms at least twice a week. It can range from mild to severe. In addition to heartburn, GERD symptoms can include:

  • regurgitation of undigested food or sour liquid into your mouth or throat
  • trouble swallowing
  • the feeling of having a lump in your throat

Frequent heartburn may be a sign that there is constant irritation to the lining of the esophagus. Too much irritation to the esophagus for extended periods of time can lead to ulceration as well as to precancerous and cancerous changes to the esophagus.

If your heartburn is severe or occurs often, see your doctor. GERD often improves with lifestyle changes or medication.

Heartburn is a common occurrence during pregnancy. It can occur at any time, starting in the first trimester.

Episodes of heartburn during pregnancy may be longer in duration than heartburn caused by food alone. However, the amount of food and types of food you eat can make heartburn worse as can bending over or lying on your back too soon after eating.

Heartburn in pregnancy is also made worse by progesterone, a hormone which is necessary for maintaining a healthy pregnancy.

Progesterone relaxes a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter, which acts like a valve, separating the stomach from the esophagus. When this muscle relaxes, it allows stomach acid to rise up out of the stomach and into the esophagus.

Because it isn’t made to handle stomach acid, the esophagus becomes irritated and causes the burning sensation we know as heartburn.

The size of the fetus also plays a role. Heartburn can worsen as pregnancy progresses and the fetus starts to fill out the entire uterus. This can cause the uterus to press up against the stomach, pushing its contents up into the esophagus.

Heartburn can also be worse for women carrying multiples, such as twins or triplets, because of the additional pressure placed upon the stomach.

Experiencing heartburn during pregnancy doesn’t mean you’ll be more prone to it after your pregnancy has ended. When your pregnancy ends, the cause of your heartburn ends, too.

Treating heartburn during pregnancy

Check with your doctor before taking any OTC medications for heartburn. If you get the green light, make sure to follow both the doctor’s and the package directions and don’t overuse.

Liquid antacids may provide greater relief than other kinds, since they coat the stomach. Talk to your doctor about which treatments are best for you.

The following home remedies may also help:

  • Warm milk with honey may soothe your stomach and reduce heartburn symptoms.
  • Resist the urge to lie down after eating and take a stroll, instead.
  • When you do sleep, try using your pregnancy pillow underneath your body from the waist up. This elevates your upper body while providing cushioning.

Occasional heartburn is common and usually responds to at-home treatment, such as taking OTC medication. Lifestyle modifications, such as avoiding certain foods and losing weight, can also help.

Heartburn during pregnancy is very common. This type of heartburn may also respond to at-home treatment. If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor before using any type of medication.

If you’re regularly experiencing heartburn more than twice a week, or it’s interfering with your life, talk to your doctor. They can help identify an underlying cause and appropriate treatment.