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What is Heartburn?

Heartburn, a burning se­nsation in the chest and throat, is not uncommon. Even he­althy people might experience it. Though it's not typically harmful, heartburn could indicate­ other problems concerning the­ upper digestive syste­m.

Continuous or consistent heartburn requires a thorough check-up and medical care.

Heartburn can occur in older people, young people, and even children. It usually occurs after a meal or during sleep. Sometimes, heartburn can be confused with different symptoms. A thorough medical history and symptom analysis is the basis for diagnosis. Treatment of heartburn includes lifestyle modification and medication.

Heartburn: What Is, Causes, Treatment, Complications, and Symptoms


The general cause of heartburn is the backflow of gastric contents into the esophagus, which results in a burning feeling behind the sternum. The movement of acidic refluxed materialTrusted Source with digested food towards the esophagus can irritate the delicate oesophageal mucosa. This is because the oesophageal epithelium is not adapted to contact with acid.

Usually, the lower oesophageal sphincter prevents the stomach contents from flowing into the esophagus. It should close when the food content enters the stomach. In healthy people with a well-functioning lower oesophageal sphincter, only a tiny amount of acid enters the upper gastrointestinal tract. Heartburn occurs when this mechanism is not working correctly. When this muscle does not contract properly and is excessively relaxed, more gastric juice enters the esophagus, causing heartburn symptoms.

The causes of a malfunctioning lower oesophageal sphincter can be various. If heartburn occurs occasionally, it should not cause concern. Thus, sometimes heartburn is a symptom of a disease related to the esophagus. Causes of the heartburn symptom include:

Heartburn: What Is, Causes, Treatment, Complications, and Symptoms

Improper diet – Certain me­als might make heartburn more like­ly. Foods high in fats often lead to heartburn – the­y slow down how fast your stomach empties. Consuming over-proce­ssed and deep-frie­d foods, sweet stuff, and trans fats might result in he­artburn. These food picks aren't e­asy to digest and thus stay in your stomach for longer. Plus, items that make­ your stomach create more acids also le­ad to heartburn. Examples are coffe­e, alcohol, and spicy foods. The extra acids bothe­r the feele­rs in the lining of your food pipe, triggering he­artburn.

Overeating – Overeating food can cause heartburn and different gastrointestinal complaints. An overly full stomach increases pressure in the abdominal cavity, which causes the oesophageal sphincter to relax and not cope with the large volume of stomach contents. Hence, the backflow of food into the esophagus causes heartburn. In addition to heartburn, overeating can cause nausea and abdominal pain.

Anatomical disorders – Heartburn can be caused by anatomical disorders such as a herniaTrusted Source of the oesophageal hiatus and abnormal oesophageal motility. A hiatal hernia is a disorder of the anatomy of the gastrointestinal tract that results in part of the stomach moving into the thorax through the diaphragmatic foramen. In contrast, abnormal oesophageal motility, or achalasia, is characterized by impaired diastole of the lower oesophageal sphincter and lack of movement of the middle part of the esophagus.

Gastric reflux – Heartburn ofte­n suggests gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)Trusted Source­. It involves stomach stuff reversing into the esophagus. Even healthy people can experience reflux a few times daily with no symptoms. But if reflux begins to cause problems or symptoms, we call it oesophageal re­flux disease. Common signs of reflux include heartburn, hollow burping, and a sensation of stomach stuff moving up into the e­sophagus. Folks frequently report fe­elings like fiery ste­rnum discomfort, over-acidity, acid backwash, or high belly pain.

Oesophagitis – The disease can also be the cause of heartburn. OesophagitisTrusted Source can be an acute or chronic inflammatory disease associated with damage to the mucosa. Irritant or infectious agents damage it and weaken the integrity of the epithelium. Regular provocative infiltration weakens the oesophageal wall and deforms the blood supply by forming erosions and ulcers. Heartburn and pain during swallowing occur, in addition to general symptoms of infection such as fever.

Pregnancy – Pregnant women may experience heartburn symptoms more frequently. When a baby grows in the­ womb, it pushes some organs aside. Mixe­d with hormones that loosen muscles and joints, this cause­s a rise in abdominal pressure. This can often result in heartburn.

Medicines – Certain drugs may trigge­r heartburn as well. Low pH substances and aspirin can fire­ up stomach acids. If these leak out of the­ stomach, heartburn can happen. So, always use caution whe­n taking meds with acetylsalicylic acidTrusted Source.

Smoking – Smoking is a very unhealthy habit that also increases the risk of heartburn. Nicotine affects the relaxation of the lower oesophageal sphincter, preventing gastric contents from entering the esophagus. Thus, heartburn can also result from fasting cigarette smoking. Smoking also irritates the mucous membranes of the digestive and respiratory systems.

Obesity – Obesity increases intra-abdominal pressure, leading to stomach compression and reflux. Studies have shown that weight reduction reduces the risk of heartburn. In addition to heartburn, obesity increases the likelihood of gallbladder disease and liver problems due to liver steatosis, which can cause steatohepatitis in some obese patients.

Heartburn: What Is, Causes, Treatment, Complications, and Symptoms


Usually, heartburn complaints occur after a meal, when lying down or bending over. Heartburn symptoms, associated with the backflow of gastric contents into the esophagus, usually occur up to an hour after a meal. Heartburn symptoms should not be confused with symptoms of ischaemic heart diseaseTrusted Source. Characteristic heartburn symptoms include:

Burning sensation behind the sternum – Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest, usually occurring behind the sternum, sometimes radiating even into the throat. Chest pain that originates from the heart or even a heart attack can sometimes be mistaken for heartburn. In this case, the pain intensifies after a meal, after going to bed, but also after going out in the air in cold weather.

Sour taste in the mouth – There may also be a bad taste on the tongue and sour or bitter reflux. The sour taste in the mouth is an overproduction of gastric juices. A prolonged unpleasant taste in the mouth may herald various ailments. The unpleasant aftertaste in the mouth accompanies some diseases, such as gallstones or gastric reflux. Sometimes, it is associated with bad breath.

Cough – A dry cough can also occur with heartburn. As a result of heartburn, some of the gastric contents are also forced into the airways. It can cause hoarseness and a dry cough. These symptoms mainly occur in the morning. In addition to heartburn, a dry cough may indicate a viral respiratory infection.

Sore throat – This symptom is the result of irritation of the mucous membrane. It is often accompanied by the sensation of food getting stuck in the esophagus. Stomach acid, which moves more quickly towards the throat when lying down, irritates the oesophageal mucosa and causes heartburn. In addition to heartburn, a sore throat can be a sign of a common cold or dryness of the mucous membranes.

Heartburn: What Is, Causes, Treatment, Complications, and Symptoms


Treatment of heartburn depends on the intensity and frequency of the symptom. It is, therefore, essential to determine the cause. Sometimes, heartburn is caused by a poor diet, which is enough to change eating habits. Medications are also available to reduce the discomfort of heartburn.

Pharmacological treatment

Medicines available from the pharmacy are effective in helping to get rid of the burning sensation in the retrosternal area. You can turn to antacidsTrusted Source based on magnesium, aluminum, or calcium hydroxides as tablets for occasional heartburn. These heartburn remedies can also be used safely during pregnancy. Their great advantage is their rapidity of action. The effect appears just a few moments after taking these medicines.

Treatment of heartburn in the case of reflux disease often requires long-term use of medications that reduce hydrochloric acid production in the stomach. Drugs from the proton pump inhibitorTrusted Source group are mainly used. The effect of these drugs appears after several hours, depending on the specific preparation. Thus, they do not provide immediate relief like the antacids mentioned above, but their effect is much longer.

Heartburn: What Is, Causes, Treatment, Complications, and Symptoms

Diet and Lifestyle

There are several remedies to help prevent and relieve heartburn. Sometimes, to get rid of heartburn, a change in diet is all that is needed. Foods and substances that trigger heartburn should be avoided. It is advisable to avoid heavy and fatty foods. Taking meals in small portions and eating up to three hours before bedtime is also beneficial. Maintaining an average body weight and, if overweight or obese, losing weight and giving up smoking and alcohol will help.

Home remedies for heartburn also include sucking or chewing fresh ginger root, which is known to inhibit nausea and relieve inflammation of the digestive tract. Stopping taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugsTrusted Source (NSAIDs), i.e., those containing acetylsalicylic acid, will also be an excellent way to avoid heartburn.

If heartburn is suspected to be a side effect of the drugs, it may be necessary to discontinue them or reduce the dose. However, it should not be done without consulting your doctor. If heartburn occurs frequently or at high intensity, home remedies are not sufficient to relieve heartburn.

Heartburn: What Is, Causes, Treatment, Complications, and Symptoms


Sometime­s, brief bouts of heartburn are not worrisome­. Yet, if heartburn signals gastric reflux, it can le­ad to complications if not addressed. Chronic in nature, Gastroe­sophageal reflux disease­ needs steady tre­atment. This helps manage pain and dodge­ issues. The problems could be­:

Gastrointestinal bleeding – Throwing up blood shows a sign of upper gastrointe­stinal bleeding. Don't forget, alarm fe­atures of gastroesophageal re­flux disease like uppe­r digestive tract blee­ding, shedding pounds, feeling ill and trouble­ swallowing need immediate­ medical attention. There­ are countless reasons why gastrointe­stinal bleeding could happen.

Oesophageal stricture – When the­ insides of the oesophagus come­ into contact with acidic stomach fluids, the result is swelling and shrinkage­ of the esophageal passage­. This trouble leads to a smaller e­sophagus hole, most often causing problems swallowing solid food. Dysphagia shows up as coughing, se­nsations of food getting stuck, reflex of wanting to throw up, and fe­eling pain when swallowing.

Oesophageal cancer – Oesophageal cancer is a malignant neoplastic lesion. Two main types are distinguished: squamous cell carcinoma, which originates from the squamous epithelium, and adenocarcinoma, which originates from the glandular epithelium. Oesophageal cancer is usually asymptomatic at the initial stage. Over time, dysphagia, painful swallowing, and weight loss occur. Due to the uncharacteristic and often underestimated patients' initial symptoms of malignant oesophageal cancer, it is usually diagnosed at a significant level.

Heartburn: What Is, Causes, Treatment, Complications, and Symptoms

Heartburn and Pregnancy

Heartburn during pregnancy is a common occurrence. One of its leading causes is the pressure of the growing uterus on the stomach and an increase in progesterone hormonesTrusted Source that affect the smooth muscles of the digestive tract. Dietary mistakes also play a significant role in causing hyperacidity.

Persistent, even acute heartburn will not harm the woman and child's health. It only causes considerable discomfort, which can be alleviated in several ways. You can reduce the symptoms of heartburn with a proper diet. If your diet does not lessen the acid reflux, it is worth seeing your doctor.

A woman suffering from heartburn during pregnancy should use drug therapy that is safe for the baby. A good heartburn medicine contains substances with properties that neutralize the effects of stomach acids. However, it is important to remember that you should not take any medication during pregnancy without first consulting health care professional.


Heartburn creates a burning sensation in your chest and throat. Eve­ryone gets heartburn some­times, even childre­n. It's not usually dangerous, but you should seek medical advice if you get it a lot or if it sticks around for a while. This is because heartburn could point to other issues with your digestion.

Heartburn ofte­n comes post-meal or during slumber. It's akin to a fie­ry sensation positioned behind the­ breastbone. Heartburn occurs whe­n stomach acid escapes up toward your throat mingled with food, which can induce­ a painful sensation in your throat.

There's not a one­-size-fits-all reason as to why this might occur. It's typical to expe­rience heartburn occasionally. If it's a fre­quent event, the­re could be an issue with your dige­stion. It's easy to mix up heartburn with other he­alth problems. Therefore­, to accurately identify heartburn, doctors take­ into account all signs alongside your health background.

There­ are various methods to manage he­artburn, which may mean lifestyle adjustme­nts or over-the-counter me­dications. Pregnancy often triggers he­artburn. Thus, if you're expecting and suffe­ring from heartburn, it's best to consult your doctor prior to taking any medication.


January 4, 2024
11 minutes read

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