Should you be worried about heartburn?

Often when you experience heartburn, it has a simple cause, and it will pass in time. However sometimes it can be more serious than that. In this article we will look at tips on how to identify if it is just simple heartburn or something you should be more concerned about.

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Heartburn produces a burning sensation in your chest when food in your stomach backs up into your oesophagus. Unfortunately, heartburn is extremely common, many Brits experience heartburn every day.

Occasional heartburn is common, most people will experience it and it is not a cause for alarm. Most can deal with the discomfort of heartburn on their own with over-the-counter medications. However, heartburn that occurs more frequently or interferes with your daily routine may be a symptom of a more serious condition that requires medical care.

What is heartburn?

Heartburn is a term used to describe gastroesophageal reflux. This is a symptom of acid reflux. The reflux is acidic stomach juice that is flowing back up into your oesophagus. This acid irritates the lining of your oesophagus and can cause a lot of discomfort. The acid reflux backs up into your neck and throat.

Heartburn symptoms

Heartburn symptoms typically appear after eating. If you lie down after a meal, it can feel even worse. If you have any of the following symptoms after a meal, you may have heartburn, acid reflux or GERD:

  • Bad breath
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Swallowing difficulties
  • Tooth enamel damage from acid (GERD)
  • Sour or bitter taste in your mouth and throat
  • Burning sensation and pressure in your breastbone

Causes of heartburn

If you are experiencing heartburn, it may be because you are producing too much acid in your stomach. This could be a result of structural issues that let acid back into your oesophagus. There are also foods and lifestyle choices that can exacerbate your risks and symptoms, including:

  • Alcohol
  • Spicy, greasy, and fried foods
  • Acidic foods (citrus, tomatoes)
  • Fatty foods (chocolate, dairy, meats)
  • Acidic beverages (coffee, carbonated drinks, juices)
  • being overweight
  • smoking
  • pregnancy
  • stress and anxiety
  • some medicines, such as anti-inflammatory painkillers (like ibuprofen)

Acidic juices can damage your oesophageal lining but not your stomach. The juices in your stomach help your body digest foods. The juices contain hydrochloric acid. Your body naturally protects your stomach from this strong acid. Your oesophagus is not protected, issues occur when this acid reaches your oesophagus.

In addition, if you smoke, you are reducing the amount of saliva your body creates. Saliva is one of the natural protective barriers of your oesophagus. If you smoke and have GERD, symptoms can be more severe.

What is GERD?

Most people experience gastroesophageal reflux (GER) from time to time. However, if an individual experiences persistent acid reflux that occurs more than twice a week, they may be diagnosed with GERD. GERD is the long-term, regular occurrence of GER.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition where stomach acid regularly flows up into the oesophagus. This acid causes heartburn and other symptoms, as well as possible tissue damage. If untreated GERD can develop more serious complications such as:

  • Esophagitis: This is an inflammation of the oesophagus.
  • Oesophageal stricture: In this condition, the oesophagus narrows, making it difficult to swallow.
  • Barrett’s oesophagus: The cells lining the oesophagus can change into cells similar to the lining of the intestine. This can develop into cancer.
  • Respiratory problems: It is possible to breathe stomach acid into the lungs, which can cause a range of problems including chest congestion, hoarseness, asthma, laryngitis, and pneumonia.

GERD should be diagnosed by your GP, if you are frequently experiencing heartburn this could be a symptom of GERD which may require medical attention. Be sure to visit your GP for further advice on this.

Heartburn or heart attack?

Symptoms of severe heartburn and those of a heart attack can often be very similar, it would not be unreasonable to mistake the two. However, you can usually tell if you have heartburn if you experience a burning sensation in your upper abdomen and chest, accompanied by a sour taste in your mouth. The most common and similar symptom of heartburn and a heart attack is the chest pain or discomfort.  Other symptoms that may be a more likely indication of heart attack are listed below:

  • Cold sweat
  • General fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Heartburn symptoms
  • Sudden light-headedness
  • Pressure or pain in your chest, arms, neck, jaw or back

With heartburn, you may feel like food is coming up into your mouth. Although, it is a different sensation than vomiting, but severe heartburn can also cause you to vomit. If you are not sure if you are experiencing heartburn or a heart attack, it is very important you seek immediate medical care.

Serious side effects of heartburn

Heart attack aside, heartburn can still be serious.  Dangerous side effects and complications can result if you do not seek treatment. Some common side effects include:

  • Awaking from sleep, especially if you have eaten within two hours of going to bed
  • Oesophageal cancer: if Barrett’s oesophagus is not treated
  • Oesophagus erosion: scarring, ulcers and narrowing of the tube
  • Barrett’s oesophagus: precancerous condition from chronic acid reflux
  • Oesophageal strictures and dysphagia: swallowing difficulties due to oesophagus damage

Heartburn treatment

Treatment for heartburn depends on how mild or severe it is. If it is mild, you can often reduce or eliminate symptoms by taking some antacids and elevating your upper body. – order these online. Along with many treatments available to tackle acid reflux.

Treatment for more severe heartburn, such as acid reflux or GERD, involves medicines to reduce acid in your stomach. Your doctor may also recommend losing weight, drinking less alcohol, and stopping smoking. In extreme cases, you might need surgery to tighten part of your oesophagus. However, do not assume you have GERD without seeking medical attention.

Learn more about heartburn, acid reflux and GERD on the NHS website.

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