What is heartburn?
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid ends up in your esophagus, the digestive tube that carries food to your stomach. Occasional heartburn is common. Recurring episodes of heartburn require treatment to prevent stomach acid from damaging the esophagus. The condition may also indicate bigger health problems.
Causes of heartburn
Stomach acid creates a burning sensation when it leaks into your esophagus through a lower esophageal sphincter (LES) valve. This valve connects the two digestive organs. Sometimes, the LES is weak and doesn't close properly, making you more susceptible to heartburn.
Certain foods and medications can cause heartburn, including:
- High-fat foods
- Acidic foods, like citrus fruit, onions, tomatoes, chocolate, coffee, or cheese
- Spicy foods or seasonings
- Aspirin or ibuprofen
Symptoms of heartburn
Heartburn typically begins just after you finish eating. The burning sensation can disappear in a few minutes or last for hours. Common symptoms include:
- Burning in the chest
- A sour taste in your mouth
- Feeling that something is stuck in your throat.
Symptoms may get worse if you lie down or bend over to pick something up. These movements allow stomach acid to move into your esophagus.
If you don't experience heartburn often or have all the classic symptoms just after eating, you may not need diagnostic testing. Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments will usually solve the problem.
Upper GI endoscopy
This is the most common initial test for gastrointestinal concerns. Your doctor will insert a thin, flexible tube called an endoscope down your throat. The tube holds a light and a camera to allow your doctor to examine your stomach lining, esophagus, and first section of your small intestine for ulcers or irritation.
You'll drink a liquid barium mixture, then undergo a series of X-rays for your chest and upper abdomen. The barium provides a clear image of the esophagus and may identify problems like ulcers or a hiatal hernia.
This test monitors your reflux episodes over a 24-hour period using a thin, acid-sensing probe. It's inserted through your nose and placed just above your LES. pH monitoring helps document acid reflux for people who have unexplained coughing, wheezing, or chest pain.
This test is often conducted in tandem with pH monitoring, and measures how well food and gas pass through your esophagus. It's another way to evaluate both acid and non-acid reflux.
Warning signs for other health conditions
Common heart attack symptoms include:
- Pressure, tightness, squeezing, a dull ache or stabbing pain in the center of your chest
- Irregular heartbeat
- Pain that spreads into the neck, shoulders, and arms
- A cold sweat or clammy skin
- Feeling weak, dizzy, or lightheaded.
- Shortness of breath
- Indigestion, nausea, and vomiting
If you've had heartburn before and this feels different, or if you're uncertain, head to the emergency room for an evaluation.
- Burning pain in the chest near or behind the breastbone
- Pain that moves up to the throat and doesn't spread elsewhere
- A choking sensation, or a feeling that food is coming back up
- Bitter, sour, or acidic taste in your throat
- Pain that increases when lying down or bending over
- Sudden symptoms after eating a spicy meal or consuming too much food
Heartburn that lasts for a long time could also indicate a bigger problem, like esophageal cancer. Risk factors include:
Treatments for heartburn
There are three types of OTC medications you can take to treat your heartburn:
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
PPIs, including lansoprazole (Prevacid), esomeprazole (Nexium), and omeprazole magnesium (Prilosec), reduce the amount of acid in the stomach. They are only intended for short-term use. Prescription PPIs are used to treat GERD, stomach ulcers, and esophageal inflammation.
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Harvard Medical School: "Do you need diagnostic tests for heartburn?"
Harvard Medical School: "Heartburn vs. Heart Attack."
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Warning Signs of Esophageal Cancer."
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): "Over-the-Counter (OTC) Heartburn Treatment."
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What Is Esophageal pH Monitoring?Esophageal pH monitoring is used to measure the reflux (regurgitation or backwash) of acid from the stomach into the esophagus and to diagnose gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Side effects of the procedure are few but may include mild discomfort in the back of the throat while the catheter is placed, and swallowing.
GERD (Acid Reflux, Heartburn)GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is a condition in which the acidified liquid contents of the stomach backs up into the esophagus. The symptoms of uncomplicated GERD are:
- regurgitation, and
GERD QuizWho is at risk for developing GERD? Are you? Take this quiz to learn what GERD is, if you're at risk, and what you can do about it.
Heartburn is a burning sensation experienced from acid reflux (GERD). Symptoms of heartburn include chest pain, burning in the throat, difficulty swallowing, the feeling of food sticking in the throat, and a burning feeling in the chest.
Causes of heartburn include dietary habits, lifestyle habits, and medical causes.
Treatments for heartburn include lifestyle changes, OTC medication,prescription medication, and surgery.
Heartburn Foods SlidesLearn the symptoms of heartburn and which foods cause heartburn or GERD. Discover home remedies and which foods may provide treatment for heartburn relief.
Acid Reflux (Heartburn, GERD): Symptoms & RemediesHeartburn is a symptom of acid reflux that causes chest pain when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. Heartburn symptoms may mimic chest pain that occurs during a heart attack. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may produce other symptoms.
Heartburn vs. Acid Reflux (Differences and Similarities)
Heartburn and acid reflux are not the same thing. Heartburn is actually a symptom of acid reflux. Heartburn gets its name because it feels like a burning sensation around the heart. Another symptom that occurs with heartburn is a bitter or sour taste in the mouth, usually when you eat or lye down. Heartburn affects more than 60 million people in the US at least once a month. Acid reflux, or GERD, occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, which irritates it. Heartburn is just one symptom of acid reflux. Other symptoms of acid reflux include:
- Nausea after eating
- A feeling of fullness during or after eating
- Abdominal bloating
- Upset stomach
- Reflux laryngitis
- A tightness in the throat
- Problems swallowing
- In some people, vomiting
Causes of acid reflux and heartburn include:
- Being obese
- Slouching (poor posture)
- Medications like calcium channel blockers, theophylline, nitrates, and antihistamines
- Foods and drinks like caffeine, citrus fruits and vegetables, alcohol, and chocolate
- Increase in stomach acid
- Eating a heavy meal
- Eating before bed
The treatment for heartburn and acid reflux is to treat the underlying cause, for example, GERD, with over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, prescription medicine, natural remedies, and lifestyle changes like a eating a healthy, less fatty, spicy diet, not eating big meals, not eating before bed, and getting regular exercise to improve your posture.
Sometimes a heart attack can mimic heartburn and acid reflux because they feel very similar. If you have symptoms of chest pain, tightness in the chest, heartburn, acid reflux, jaw, tooth, or head pain; shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, sweating, discomfort in the upper middle of the abdomen, arm or upper back pain, or the general feeling of being ill, go to the nearest Emergency Department immediately because these are the symptoms of a heart attack.
American College of Gastroenterology. "Acid Reflux." 2017.
familydoctor.org. "Heartburn." Updated: Mar 2014.
National Library of Medicine; PubMed Health. "Heartburn and GERD: Treatment options for GERD." Updated: Nov 18, 2015.
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Ways to Relieve Acid Reflux (GERD, Heartburn)Most people have experienced some sort of pain or discomfort following a large meal or a particular food that didn’t quite agree with their stomach. Acid reflux symptoms can happen without a specific underlying condition.
What Is the Quickest Way to Get Rid of Heartburn?Taking antacids is considered the quickest way to get rid of heartburn. These over-the-counter medications help neutralize stomach acid. They are one of the first recommended treatments. They may provide quick relief. However, antacid overuse can cause problems such as diarrhea or chronic kidney disease, especially if they contain aluminum and magnesium.
What Should I Eat When I Have Heartburn?Heartburn happens when your stomach acid comes up your throat. Foods you should eat if you have heartburn include oatmeal, sweet potatoes, ginger, melons, chicken broth, fennel, non-fat milk, herbs, olive oil and lean meat.