Heartburn: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment Options


What Is Heartburn?

Heartburn is a burning pain in the chest, just behind the breastbone. It is a common problem created by acid reflux, a condition where some of the contents of the stomach are forced back into the esophagus, along with the stomach acids. This causes a burning sensation in the lower chest.

People might experience heartburn every once in a while, which is normal. Most can manage the discomfort of heartburn on their own with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. Persistent acid reflux which takes place more than twice a week is termed gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.

At least 15 million Americans experience heartburn daily. Heartburn can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. It often feels worse after the person eats or when they lay down immediately after consuming a meal.

Causes Of Heartburn

When food is consumed, it passes down a long tube that connects the mouth and stomach, called the esophagus. At its bottom is a valve, called the esophageal sphincter. It opens to let food into the stomach and closes to keep it from regurgitating back upwards. The stomach’s inner lining produces a strong acidic mixture that starts the process of breaking the food down.

The stomach is designed to hold this mixture, but the esophagus would not be able to handle it without getting hurt. There are times where the valve, also known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) cannot close properly. This leads some of the acid mixtures to enter the tube, causing acid reflux. When this happens, the person would feel a burning sensation, termed as heartburn.

1. Medical Causes

In some cases, heartburn may be caused due to medical conditions such as:

  • Hiatal hernia, where the stomach bulged up into the chest
  • Pregnancy
  • Certain medicines like anti-inflammatory drugs and aspirin
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD

Also Read: Diet For GERD

2. Lifestyle Causes

Many parts of daily life can act as triggers for heartburn. Usually, it is a result of certain eating and lifestyle habits, such as eating large portions of food, having meals too close to bedtime, or high-stress levels.

Some foods and drinks that could be heartburn triggers are:

  • Citrus fruits
  • High-fat foods
  • Tomatoes and tomato products
  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Onions
  • Alcohol
  • Carbonated drinks

Lifestyle habits can also contribute to heartburn, including:

  • Having a high-stress level
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Heavy smoking
  • Wearing tight and restricting clothes, especially around the abdomen

Symptoms Of Heartburn

Symptoms of heartburn are obvious to most patients of digestive issues. The most well-known sign is a feeling of warmth or heat, that could progress into a burning sensation, in the chest or throat. This is caused due to the esophagus’ inner walls being irritated by stomach acid.

Other symptoms include:

  • Chest pain, particularly after laying down or bending over after eating
  • Rising pain, which may reach the jaw
  • Burning sensation in the chest and at the back of the throat
  • Indigestion-like pain
  • Acrid, foul taste in the mouth
  • Long-term cough, sore throat, or hoarseness
  • Fluid at the back of the throat that tastes salty, acidic, sour, or hot

Treatments For Heartburn

Occasional heartburns are common and typically not serious. The main treatment for repeated heartburn caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease is to reduce the production of stomach acid. This can be done by following certain habits, keeping an eye on the diet, taking certain drugs, or a combination of all three.

1. Lifestyle And Dietary Changes

Usually, heartburn can be treated at home with medicines readily obtainable over the counter and changes to lifestyle habits that cause the feeling. Some suggestions for doing this are as follows:

  • Restrain from eating before lying down and sitting up straight while eating
  • Following a healthy diet with limited fat intake
  • Reducing weight, in case of obesity or excessive weight around the abdomen
  • Quitting smoking habits
  • Having a review of existing medical conditions and medications
  • Avoiding heavy lifting and straining during workouts
  • Eating small meals more often than just a few large meals
  • Exercising at least 30 minutes a day
  • Monitoring and avoiding food triggers which include spicy food, caffeine, full cream milk, alcohol, etc.
  • Consuming food at a slower pace
  • Sleeping on the left side to aid quick digestion
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothes
  • Raising the head of the bed to put the head and chest at a higher position

2. Medicinal Treatments

Heartburn medicines can be taken on both prescription or an over-the-counter basis. They provide quicker results and would be recommended along with following certain eating and living habits. The drugs can also be taken when these practices fail to reduce the frequency of heartburn. Some popular ones are:

2.1. Antacids

Antacids are the first line of drugs recommended to treat heartburn. They aim at reducing the levels of acid produced by the stomach. The drug can also be used to soothe a stomach upset, indigestion, and other pains relating to the stomach.

Some types of antacids contain simethicone, which reduces gas. Brands of antacids that can be purchased without a prescribing are:

  • Gaviscon
  • Maalox
  • Rolaids
  • Tums

Magnesium or sodium bicarbonate could be the ingredients of some of these antacids, which can act as a laxative. People experiencing symptoms of appendicitis or bowel inflammation should not be administering antacids. A few side effects may comprise of:

  • Pale or white bowel movements
  • Constipation
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea

2.2. H2 Blockers

If antacids do not succeed in lowering the amount of stomach acid, the person may take H2 blockers, which are also known as acid blockers. These drugs relieve heartburn, sour stomach, and acid indigestion. The directions and doses stated on the packages should be strictly followed, even if there is no pain or the symptoms start getting better after the first intake.

While H2 blockers can be bought only through prescription, the ones obtainable over-the-counter are:

  • Pepcid AC
  • Tagamet HB

Common side effects of acid blockers would involve headaches, diarrhea, or dizziness. There might be some severe side effects, which would require immediate medical attention. They are:

  • Chest tightness
  • Confusion and hazed thinking
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sore throat
  • Weakness or unusual fatigue
  • Bleeding
  • Fever

2.3. Prescription Medicine

Along with stronger doses of H2 blockers, a type of drug for heartburns called Proton Pump Inhibitors, or PPIs, can be taken only through prescription. The person would need to consult their doctor before they are suggested to use PPIs. Inhibitors block the production of acid in the stomach more effectively.

A few brands are:

  • Aciphex
  • Prilosec
  • Protonix
  • Prevacid
  • Nexium


Heartburns seem like a regular occurrence, but they should not be ignored. Quick-relief techniques may not last long, and there might be a risk of developing GERD. It could further worsen and damage the esophagus, causing conditions such as Barrett’s esophagus, which may give rise to esophageal cancer. Consult a doctor for the best solutions for frequent heartburns.


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