Priyanka Chugh, MD, is board-certified gastroenterologist with a background in internal medicine. She practices with Trinity Health of New England in Waterbury, Connecticut.
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid comes into contact with the lining of the esophagus. This can cause a burning sensation in the chest or throat, coughing, and vomiting. Anyone may experience occasional heartburn. However, if it occurs frequently or daily, it may be a symptom of an underlying digestive disorder, most often gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Treatment includes changes to your lifestyle and over-the-counter or prescription medications.
Acid reflux—more commonly called heartburn—occurs when stomach acid comes into contact with the lining of the esophagus, causing irritation. Some acid reflux treatments focus on avoiding substances that weaken the lower esophageal sphincter and impair its function. Others work to reduce or buffer stomach acid production and avoid irritation of the esophagus.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is caused by chronic acid reflux or, more rarely, a hiatal hernia or tumor. The primary symptoms of GERD are heartburn, a burning sensation located beneath the breastbone, and regurgitation, in which stomach acid reaches the back of the throat, producing a sour, acidic taste. Untreated GERD can lead to serious complications.
The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is the muscle that opens and closes between the esophagus and stomach. When the LES doesn't do its job properly, acids from the stomach can pass into the mouth and throat.
Stomach acid, also called gastric acid, helps break down food for digestion in the stomach. The stomach has a protective lining that prevents damage from gastric acids. However, if stomach acids reach the throat as a result of heartburn, they can cause pain and irritation.
Antacids are commonly used heartburn medications that may relieve occasional heartburn and indigestion. The active ingredients in antacids neutralize stomach acid. Natural remedies to consider also include aloe vera juice, deglycyrrhizinated licorice, and baking soda dissolved in water.
Certain foods and beverages are more likely to cause heartburn in some people. Common triggers to avoid include coffee, tea, and other caffeinated drinks; alcoholic beverages; chocolate; fried, greasy, or fatty foods; peppermint; tomatoes and tomato-based products; spicy foods and black pepper; and citrus fruits and juices.
Most people experience the symptoms of heartburn occasionally, often after a large or spicy meal. The symptoms usually occur after eating and can last for hours or through the night. Chronic heartburn, which includes episodes that occur several times a week or several times a day, can lead to complications if left untreated. See your doctor if heartburn is a recurring issue for you.
Quitting smoking, avoiding or reducing alcohol consumption, and avoiding lying down after eating will all help prevent heartburn or reduce episodes. In addition, pay attention to dietary patterns, since foods can often trigger heartburn. For daily prevention, try drinking water or herbal tea or chewing gum after a meal to help wash down stomach acid.
Stress hasn't been shown to directly cause heartburn. However, it can lead to behaviors that trigger heartburn. During stressful times, routines are disrupted, and you may not follow your normal routines in regard to meals, exercise, and medication. Try to follow healthy eating and exercise patterns, even during times of anxiety or transition, to help reduce heartburn occurrence.
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