Persistent heartburn can lead to bigger problems
• Chili, pizza and other spicy, fatty fare
• Cigarettes and other tobacco products
• Citrus fruits and juices
• Being overweight
• After-dinner mints and chocolates
• Laying down or bending over after eating
• Aspirin, ibuprofen and other drugs
• Tight clothes
A once-brimming bowl of chili sits empty on the table — testament to a meal that’s fast becoming an afterthought. But when a burning sensation creeps into the chest, followed by a bitter aftertaste, it’s time to head to the cabinet for some antacid.
You’ve got heartburn. Nothing’s really on fire, and the problem isn’t your heart — but acids that were supposed to stay put in the stomach are in reflux, moving up and irritating the lining of the esophagus.
“I’m sure most people have had it at some time or another,” says Dr. Joel Sarachek, a family physician with the highly rated UCLA Medical Group — Parkside office in Santa Monica, Calif.
Estimates vary, but researchers say up to 1 in 4 Americans have heartburn on a weekly basis. Usually it’s little more than an annoyance, but sometimes it can lead to bigger problems.
In addition to acid reflux, frequent, severe heartburn can be a sign of a persistent condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. That can wreak havoc on the esophagus, eroding the lining and causing other complications called Barrett’s esophagus to occur. In rare cases, if left untreated, it can lead to cancer, he says.
If heartburn doesn't go away on its own, usually an over-the-counter antacid will do the trick, but be warned that overuse can cause diarrhea or constipation. Avoiding things that might aggravate heartburn — such as eating a heavy meal two to three hours before going to bed — and propping up the head of your bed on 6- to 9-inch blocks can also help.
If regular symptoms persist, the doctor might recommend a prescription medicine designed to reduce the amount of acid made by the stomach.
"Surgery is quite rare," Sarachek says. "It would more likely be necessary in someone who has a hiatal hernia." With this condition, the stomach protrudes through the diaphragm and reflux is more common.
Is it heartburn or a heart attack?
Although unrelated, symptoms can easily be confused with a heart attack. Heartburn usually leaves one with a bitter taste, while chest pain associated with a heart attack often feels more like pressure, like someone pushing on your chest, Sarachek says. But if you’re not sure what you’re experiencing, especially if pain persists, seek medical attention immediately.
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