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Heartburn

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read
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Heartburn is when you get burning pain in your chest or throat area caused by acid travelling from your stomach (where it should be) up into your gullet or throat (where it should not). We also call it indigestion, gastroesophageal reflux or dyspepsia.

When you swallow, food passes from the mouth and throat to the esophagus and on to the stomach, which produces acid to digest the food. Movement shouldn't occur the opposite way, and a one-way valve (sphincter) protects the esophagus from this. The esophagus becomes irritated if it's exposed to acid.

The sphincter may not function properly for a number of reasons, which can be as simple as bending over causing increased pressure in the stomach and forcing movement through the sphincter the wrong way.

If acid reflux continues to happen and cause damage, it's diagnosed as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Heartburn is very common and most people experience it in their lifetime. In most cases it's mild and it resolves on its own or can be treated at home.

What causes heartburn?

It's worth exploring common triggers for heartburn and eliminating them to see if that helps. Sometimes we don't find a cause.

You are more likely to suffer from heartburn if you are pregnant, a smoker, overweight, drink alcohol beyond recommended limits, suffer from something called a hiatus hernia or if you take certain medications.

Certain foods and drinks can be triggers, such as caffeine, alcohol, hot drinks, spicy foods and tomato-based food dishes. Acid reflux can cause other symptoms other than heartburn such as an acidic or bitter taste in the mouth, halitosis (bad breath), a cough, nausea, bloating, burping and pain on swallowing hot drinks.

Symptoms are often worse after bending over, when lying down or after eating.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

You can make some adjustments at home which may help: eat small regular meals, don't eat for a couple of hours before bedtime, raise your head when you sleep either via pillows or raising the head end of the bed frame, avoid foods which may cause or worsen the symptoms and avoid wearing anything tight around your waist area. Lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking or losing weight will also help improve symptoms over time.

Your pharmacist may recommend a variety of medications, provided symptoms have only bothered you for a short time. For relief, treatments fall into three main groups:

Antacids provide quick relief by neutralizing excess acid in the stomach. Effects last for a couple of hours at best, which may be sufficient for most people. Examples include Rolaids.

Alginates provide quick relief of symptoms, and additionally form a layer on top of the stomach contents to form a protective physical barrier or buffer zone that helps to prevent stomach acid and contents from moving upward to the esophagus and causing pain. Protection lasts for hours afterward. An example is Gaviscon suspension.

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) decrease the amount of acid produced in the stomach by turning off an acid-producing part of the stomach. This type of treatment may not provide an instant effect and needs repeated use over days to provide relief, but it gives much longer protection - for up to 24 hours. An example is Nexium (containing the drug esomeprazole).

Natural treatment options include medications containing herbs or minerals that can also balance excess acidity.

Am I fit for work?

You are fit for work if you have heartburn.

When should I see my doctor?

You should book an urgent visit with your doctor if you have any pain or difficulty swallowing. You should also see your doctor if your symptoms do not improve after following two weeks of home treatment and pharmacy advice.

The doctor will ask you about your medical history, what symptoms you’ve been having and for how long and what treatments you’ve tried. They will likely examine your tummy by pressing on your stomach and having a listen to it with their stethoscope. Your doctor may prescribe a PPI for you to take every day for a month that will help decrease the amount of acid your stomach produces. If this doesn't work, they may change the dose or give you an alternative that works slightly differently.

Depending on the length and severity of symptoms, and the examination of your abdomen, your doctor may also consider sending you for a camera test to look at your esophagus.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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