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.
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:
These change the stomach acid and treat mild heartburn. Brands include Tums, Rolaids, and Mylanta.
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.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
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."