Do you ever feel like your chest is hot after eating a particularly unhealthy or big meal? Does it seem to happen on a regular basis? If so, you may be dealing with frequent heartburn. It may be uncomfortable, to the point of being painful, but there are some simple steps you can take to make it more manageable.
How Heartburn Works
Heartburn is also called acid indigestion, and is associated with a painful burning sensation in your chest and the upper portion of your stomach. You may also feel it in your neck, jaw, or arms, and the pain itself can linger for hours. This typically happens as a result of dysfunction in the lower esophageal sphincter (LES); this body part works like a gate to allow food to move from your esophagus to your stomach, and remains shut to prevent acid from reflexively rising into your esophagus. If your LES is too open or too tight, acid will rise into your esophagus and give you that burning feeling.
This can happen because of an underlying health condition, or also in response to several “trigger” factors, like overeating, eating spicy foods, or lying down after you eat. People who smoke, people who are overweight, and people who are pregnant are at higher risk for this condition.
One of the most reliable ways to reduce your heartburn symptoms is to prevent them from happening in the first place, by avoiding certain foods and habits that result in heartburn. Pay attention to when you seem to be experiencing heartburn the most; is it associated with specific types of food? Do you only feel it when you overeat?
The most common heartburn triggers include:
- Spicy foods, like hot wings, peppers, and hot sauces.
- Acidic foods, like acidic sodas and carbonated drinks, citrus fruits, and tomatoes.
- Greasy or fried foods, like onion rings, French fries, and fast food in general.
- High-volume intake, regardless of what you’re eating. If you’re eating too much, it can cause heartburn.
Note that other habits, including smoking, or lying down immediately after eating, can make heartburn worse.
There are some medications that are designed to mitigate or alleviate the symptoms of heartburn. Some of these are over-the-counter (OTC), while others are available only via prescription. For example, you can find antacid tablets in practically any grocery or convenience store; these tablets typically contain calcium carbonate or magnesium, and are meant to neutralize stomach acid, reducing the severity of acid reflux. They act within seconds, but only have a mild effect. They’re ideal for mild, occasional heartburn.
You may also be able to use H2 blockers, which prevent the total volume of acid your stomach creates. They take much longer to take effect than antacids, and are only designed for short-term use; additionally, they may interfere with other medications, like blood thinners or antiseizure medicines.
Another type of medication is a proton-pump inhibitor (PPI). These are designed to reduce stomach acid volume like H2 blockers, but are designed for long-term use. They’re best for people who experience heartburn severely and often, even after dietary changes.
Your doctor may also recommend a stronger prescription medication, in one or more of the above categories.
Do be cautious when selecting a medication. Many medications, even OTC options, could interfere with other medications you’re taking. On top of that, they may come with side effects, or contain dangerous ingredients. For example, a recent report revealed that an ingredient in Zantac may be contaminated with carcinogens; accordingly, people who have taken the medication regularly may be at higher risk for certain types of cancer, including stomach cancer and bladder cancer. Many law firms have attempted to raise awareness of this discovery, generating attention for potential class-action lawsuits.
When to Talk to a Doctor
While many cases of heartburn are occasional, and natural in response to different stimuli, some cases are the result of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is a much more serious and long-term condition. If you have GERD, simple dietary changes and occasional OTCs will probably not be enough to relieve the pain. You’ll need to meet with a doctor to discuss your options, which could include long-term prescription medications.
Talk to a doctor if your symptoms appear to be present no matter what you eat or how much or how often you eat. Also talk to a doctor if your symptoms don’t appear to improve with the use of OTC medications, or if you’ve been taking medications daily to relieve the symptoms.
Heartburn is a serious and painful condition, but thankfully, most cases can be resolved with a handful of habit changes and lifestyle adjustments. Stop smoking, eat less per meal, and avoid triggering foods like acidic and spicy foods, and you’ll likely see a massive reduction in your symptoms. If you don’t, consult a physician immediately.