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What Is Heartburn?

Heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux or acid reflux (also known as "acid indigestion" or in more serious cases, "GERD", gastroesophageal reflux disease).  According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), more than 60 million American adults experience heartburn at least once a month. As many as 25 million suffer daily. Men and women are affected almost equally, but incidence increases after age 40.  Heartburn is also a fairly common complaint among pregnant women.

Heartburn often starts as a burning pain behind the breastbone and travels upward to the neck.  Often people may have a sensation of food coming back into their mouths, accompanied by an acidic or bitter taste.  Heartburn is caused when a muscle between the esophagus and stomach weakens or relaxes, inappropriately allowing stomach acid and/or undigested food to pass back into the esophagus.  Heartburn usually occurs after meals, but it may also occur with stress or at night. 

Other symptoms of heartburn include persistent sore throat, hoarseness, chronic cough, asthma, chest pain, or feeling a lump in the throat. 

Frequent heartburn 2 or more times per week, may be associated with chronic gastroesophageal reflux and a more serious condition called "GERD", or gastroesophageal reflux disease.   Chronic gastroesophageal reflux may cause serious problems including erosive esophagitis, Barrett's esophagus (a pre-cancerous condition), or ultimately, esophageal cancer.

What can you do to treat it?  First, try over-the-counter medications along with lifestyle changes:

  • Don't lie down for 3 hrs after eating.
  • Avoid foods, drinks or medicines that aggravate heartburn, such as fried or fatty foods, chocolate, coffee, sodas, citrus fruits, tomato products and alcohol.
  • Eat smaller portions at mealtimes.
  • Wear loose fitting clothing.
  • Maintain a normal body weight.
  • Stop smoking.

If over-the-counter medicines and lifestyle changes don't eliminate your heartburn, see your doctor.  There are now several prescription medicines that may help. These prescription medicines fall into two categories:

  • H2 receptor antagonists, which work by decreasing the flow of stomach acid.
  • Proton Pump Inhibitors, which decrease the flow of stomach acid to a greater degree.

Created: 9/26/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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