Heartburn Facts You Should Know

Learn the basics about heartburn and your risks

Talking to a pharmacist about heartburn.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Heartburn is a digestive problem you may experience when your stomach acid backs up and contacts the lining of your esophagus, causing irritation. It's also called acid reflux. While it can occur as part of indigestion, when it happens frequently it may mean that you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Learn nine quick facts about heartburn, its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

1. What Heartburn Feels Like

Heartburn begins as a burning pain behind the breastbone, and it then usually radiates upward toward your throat. The pain is worse when you lie down or bend over. There is often a sensation of food coming back into your mouth. It is accompanied by a sour or bitter taste in the mouth. The symptoms often occur after eating and can last for hours.

2. Heartburn Affects Millions

More than 60 million American adults experience heartburn at least once a month, and about 15 million American adults have heartburn on a daily basis, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.  Heartburn is more common among the elderly, as well as among pregnant women.

3. Heartburn Is Not Just Caused by Your Habits

While lifestyle habits can worsen your heartburn symptoms, and increase the number of heartburn episodes, heartburn is a medical condition with biological causes. Heartburn happens when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is located between the esophagus and stomach, is weakened or opens inappropriately.

This allows acid and other stomach contents back into the esophagus, causing irritation.

4. Specific Foods Can Trigger Heartburn

Approximately 94 percent of people who experience heartburn can link their heartburn symptoms to specific foods. Spicy, fatty, greasy, or acidic foods are often triggers, as are chocolate, coffee, peppermint, and alcohol.

Some of these relax the sphincter between the stomach and esophagus and may directly contribute to heartburn.

5. Nighttime Heartburn Symptoms Can Disturb Sleep

Eighty percent of people who have heartburn report symptoms at night and 75 percent say nighttime heartburn awakens them during the night or prevents them from sleeping. Forty percent say that their nighttime heartburn symptoms affect their ability to work the next day. It is recommended that you don't eat for two to three hours before you go to bed.

6. Lifestyle Changes Can Help Reduce Heartburn Episodes

You can reduce the onset of heartburn naturally with healthy lifestyle changes. These include knowing what are the good foods and bad foods for heartburn, avoiding alcohol consumption, stopping smoking, losing weight if you are overweight, and reducing stress. Tobacco increases heartburn in two ways. It inhibits saliva, which normally buffers stomach acid. It also relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter muscle.

7. Over-the-Counter and Prescription Medications Can Be Used for Heartburn

If you have an occasional bout of heartburn, it is appropriate to use over-the-counter antacids and non-prescription acid blockers (also known as H2 blockers).

If you have frequent episodes, you should see your doctor for screening and diagnosis to rule out other problems. You may be prescribed a more powerful H2 blocker or a proton pump inhibitor (PPI).

8: Heartburn Is a Symptom of GERD

Heartburn is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease. GERD also affects infants and children and adolescents. There are several ways to prevent the heartburn in adults and children, and several preventative steps for infants.

9: Chronic Heartburn Can Have Serious Complications

Chronic acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, can lead to serious complications.

The constant presence of refluxed acid in the esophagus can lead to conditions such as Barrett's esophagus, erosive esophagitis, esophageal strictures, and even esophageal cancer.

Sources:

Acid Reflux. American College of Gastroenterology. http://patients.gi.org/topics/acid-reflux/ .

Heartburn. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heartburn/basics/definition/con-20019545 .

Symptoms & Causes of GER & GERD. National Institute of Diabetes Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults/symptoms-causes.