Occasional heartburn is not uncommon, and over-the-counter medications can usually provide relief. However, frequent and severe heartburn may indicate a more serious condition.
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus, or the canal through which food passes. The acid’s presence creates an uncomfortable burning feeling in the chest behind the breastbone and can move up to the neck and throat. The duration of heartburn symptoms can range from a few minutes to several hours and often feels worse after eating.
Heartburn is characterized by a burning sensation in the chest that occurs after eating and can last for an extended period of time. The burning sensation may also move to the throat, accompanied by a sour or salty taste in the throat. These sensations can be aggravated by lying down, bending over or eating. Heartburn symptoms sometimes include difficulty swallowing or a sensation that food is stuck in the middle of the chest or throat.
Smoking and being overweight can contribute to developing heartburn, as can excessively tight clothing and belts. Stress and anxiety can also play a role in heartburn’s occurrence. Other elements that can trigger heartburn include drinking alcohol, caffeinated beverages, carbonated beverages and citrus juices; eating large food portions; and eating foods such as tomatoes or tomato-based products, spicy foods, onions, high-fat foods, garlic, peppermint, chocolate and citrus fruits. Eating shortly before bedtime has also been associated with heartburn occurrence.
Heartburn can be treated with antacids, which help neutralize stomach acid. They often can provide quick relief. H2-receptor antagonists, or H2 blockers, can reduce stomach acid, helping to eliminate heartburn. And proton pump inhibitors, such as Prevacid, Nexium and Prilosec OTC also can reduce stomach acid.
Severe, chronic heartburn may be indicative of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter or the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach. GERD creates problems with heartburn or acid indigestion for many people, often including pregnant women. GERD has been associated with inflammation and narrowing of the esophagus, respiratory problems, chronic cough, and even Barrett’s esophagus, which can lead to the development of esophageal cancer.
It’s important to contact your provider if the frequency or severity of your heartburn symptoms increases, swallowing becomes difficult or painful, you experience a significant weight loss, you experience hoarseness, your heartburn causes you to vomit, or if heartburn interferes with your daily routine. Also, if your heartburn symptoms persist after taking over-the-counter medications for more than two weeks or you continue to have heartburn symptoms even after taking prescription medications, consult your provider.