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Heartburn, or gastroesophageal reflux, is a common form of indigestion characterized by a burning sensation in the upper abdomen and chest. It occurs when stomach acids back up into the esophagus or food pipe. A sour taste and the sensation of food coming back into the mouth may accompany the burning sensation behind the breastbone.
Stomach acids wash back up (reflux) into the esophagus when the sphincter, or circular band of muscle at the bottom of the food pipe that closes off backflow from the stomach becomes abnormally relaxed or weakened. Some things that encourage reflux are being overweight, overeating or lying down after a meal, or eating or drinking rich, fatty, or spicy foods, alcohol, peppermint, chocolate, or citrus and tomato juices. Caffeine and nicotine can also relax the sphincter muscle or irritate the esophagus. Other causes include stress, pregnancy, wearing tight clothing, or swallowing too much air.
Seek Emergency Help If...
- You have chest pressure or pain (radiating to your arm, neck, or jaw)
- You have chest discomfort with shortness of breath or trouble breathing, sweating, nausea or vomiting, sense of doom, or uneven heartbeat
- You are vomiting something black or red in color
See Your Doctor If...
- You have severe or persistent discomfort (chronic heartburn can cause scarring that can make swallowing difficult or may be caused by a condition called a "hiatal hernia"or ulcers)
- You have difficulty swallowing
- Pain goes through to your back
- Your stools are black and tarlike
- Your heartburn has occurred often over 3 days or doesn't respond to self-care
- Slim down if you are overweight
- Eat small meals, eat slowly and chew thoroughly
- Avoid foods and drinks that relax the sphincter or irritate the esophagus (see above)
- Take aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or arthritis medicines with food
- Don't drink through straws or bottles with narrow mouths
- Avoid foods and drinks that contain air (carbonated beverages, whipped cream, etc.)
- Do not eat for at least 2 to 3 hours before going to bed
- Raise the head of the bed slightly
- Quit smoking
- Do not wear tight clothing or belts
- Avoid excessive stooping or bending or heavy exertion for 1 hour after eating
- Try non-prescription antacids to relieve mild heartburn (prolonged or excessive use of magnesium-based antacids can cause diarrhea and calcium- or aluminum-based products can cause
- Try non-prescription or prescription strength medications such as Pepcid, Tagamet or Zantac to prevent heartburn (these medicines reduce the production of stomach acid)