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What Can I Do About My Heartburn?

November 24, 2020

It’s a typical weekday night after dinner. You’re relaxing on the sofa when a burning sensation surges across your chest. You had the same thing happen a few nights earlier, but tonight the pain is joined by a frightening tightness in your throat. Could this be a heart attack? Or maybe just a nasty bout of heartburn? But even if it is “just heartburn,” should you be concerned enough to see a doctor? 

First, it’s important to understand what heartburn is, and that it has little to do with the heart — even if the symptoms suggest otherwise. It usually occurs after a meal, causing a burning feeling under the breastbone. You may regurgitate undigested pieces of food, while experiencing chest pain, nausea, painful swallowing, coughing and hoarseness.

What Causes Gastroesophageal Reflux? 

More than 60 million Americans suffer heartburn at least once a month, with some 15 million struggling with it each day, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. Symptoms are particularly common among pregnant women and the elderly. But when it occurs more than twice a week, it may be a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This is when your stomach acid flows back into your esophagus. Be aware that you can also have GERD without experiencing heartburn

Heartburn can be caused by a range of factors, including foods, pregnancy and medications. In particular, antibiotics along with blood pressure and osteoporosis medications can trigger it or make it worse. 

How to Prevent Heartburn

To fight heartburn, there are many things you can try, including:

  • Stop eating two or three hours before bed.

  • Stay upright after a meal rather than reclined.

  • Skip exertion that involves bending, straining or vigorous activity.

  • Avoid tight clothes, waistbands and belts.

  • Eat smaller meals and avoid overeating.

  • Reduce or avoid alcohol, citrus juice (including tomato products), chocolate, tea, coffee, sodas/carbonated beverages, peppermint and spicy or greasy foods. 

  • Elevate the head of your bed by 4 to 6 inches.

  • Stop smoking.

  • If you’re overweight or obese, lose weight.

Is My Heartburn Serious? 

Heartburn often is dismissed as a harmless nuisance, at least in part, because it is so common. But it’s important to understand that prolonged symptoms can lead to serious health issues, including esophageal cancer, one of the deadlier cancers. Other serious complications include:

  • Severe chest pain that can mimic a heart attack

  • Narrowing or obstruction of the esophagus 

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Choking, coughing or hoarseness

  • Unexplained bleeding (vomiting or in stools)

  • Unexplained weight loss

These red flags should prompt you to seek help right away. If you have chronic heartburn or GERD, it’s important to keep an eye out for changes. And if you find yourself popping antacids more than twice a week, without getting better, it’s time to visit your doctor.


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