What Is Heartburn? Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Have you ever gotten a fiery sensation behind your sternum, when you eat your favorite fried food or drink too much caffeine? Heartburn can keep you up at night or ruin the end of a fantastic meal.

It’s time to learn about the signs and symptoms of heartburn, so you can prevent it next time.

What is Heartburn?

The first stop that food makes, on its journey of digestion through your body, is your mouth. It then travels down your esophagus, about 10 cm in most people, and passes into your stomach.

Lower esophageal sphincterThere is a gateway between your stomach and esophagus that helps keep the food down in your stomach, where it can be digested properly. It’s called the lower esophageal sphincter.

This gateway also keeps the acid in your stomach from raising up and irritating the lining of your esophagus. If the acid injures that lining over and over again, you could end up with permanent damage, and an increased risk of cancer.

However, if you have heartburn less than once a week, you can probably use life style changes, or over the counter treatment for acid reflux as needed.

Most Common Heartburn Symptoms

The main symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation right behind your sternum.

If you have any of these other symptoms, you may have chronic heartburn, also called gastroesophageal reflux (or acid reflux) disease:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • Chronic cough
  • Abdominal pain
  • Regurgitation of foods with the taste of acid in your throat

Talk to your physician if you have any of these symptoms as they could be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease, stomach ulcer, or something else.

What Are The Causes of Heartburn?

Symptoms of heartburn are most commonly experienced after overeating, after lying down post meal time, during pregnancy, stress, and eating certain foods.

Everyone has their own personal triggers for heartburn, especially food. Some of the more common foods that may cause heartburn are:

  • Citrus FruitFried foods cause heartburn
  • Tomatoes
  • Chocolate products
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Alcohol
  • Fried or high fat food
  • Onions
  • Coffee

A few of the foods listed above don’t just increase your stomach acid, they actually decrease the tightness of the lower esophageal sphincter, causing it to leak.

So that mocha latte you get in the mornings may be the reason for your heartburn!

Medications are also a common culprit for inducing heartburn. Talk to your pharmacist to see if any of your medications could be contributing to your heartburn symptoms.

Treatment for Heartburn

There are three main classes of over-the-counter medications for heartburn:

  • Antacids
  • H2 blockers
  • Proton pump inhibitors


These medications, like Tums, Rolaids, or Pepto bismol neutralize the stomach acid that is already in your stomach.

Antacids work quickly, usually in about 15 minutes to half an hour.

Don’t be fooled by the marketing! The generic products have the same active ingredients in them as the brand names. I pay for for name brand Tums only because I like the flavor more, not because they work better.

H2 Blockers

These drugs, like Pepcid, work on the cells that produce the acid in your stomach, stopping them from releasing acid into your gut.

H2 blockers usually take between 30-60 minutes to start working.

This class of medication is best to be taken before a meal that you know will be causing heartburn.

Proton Pump Inhibitors

Medications like omeprazole work by getting absorbed by your body, and inhibiting the cells that produce stomach acid from growing.

If you have heartburn often, this might be a medication that your physician would recommend. This class of medication should only be used for >4 weeks, if your doctor has given their approval.

The proton pump inhibitors take anywhere from 1-3 days to show their full effect.

Patients often complain of rebound heartburn when they take a proton pump inhibitor for a while and suddenly stop it.

Heartburn Prevention

If you are overweight, losing a few pounds can decrease the amount of pressure on your abdomen, decreasing the risk of acid leaking into your esophagus.

Wearing looser fitting clothes help for the same reason! That waist band from your jeans may be adding unwanted pressure to your diaphragm.

Avoid eating meals before bed, and also do not lay down after you have a meal for a few hours. If you need to take a nap after a big meal, try sleeping sitting up.

Avoid the use of peppermint after a meal, as this is another type of food that has shown decrease the tension of the esophageal sphincter.

Monitor what types of food trigger your heartburn, then only eat the foods in moderation, possibly with an antacid.

Stop smoking! The chemicals in cigarettes can cause your esophageal sphincter to leak, increasing your heartburn symptoms.


While there are many things that can cause heartburn, there are also plenty of life style modifications and heartburn treatment options available.

For example, natural remedies for acid reflux. As you may know, acid reflux and heartburn are closely related.

What have you used in the past to treat your heartburn?


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