Heartburn Treatments: What You Need To Know

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If you’ve ever clutched your chest and winced after a big meal, you’ve felt the burn. Heartburn occurs when the acid from your stomach flows back up into your esophagus and even your throat, causing that painful burning sensation in your chest. Or it might feel like a bitter or sour fluid at the back of your throat. It often occurs when your lower esophageal sphincter, which is a band of muscle at the bottom of your esophagus, has weakened and allows your stomach contents to leak out instead of remaining in your stomach.  

Heartburn can be caused by a number of factors, such as pregnancy, hiatal hernia, and even certain medications. Fortunately, a few simple lifestyle changes reduce or even eliminate the problem for many people. Others may find they need to incorporate several strategies, including changes and medications or other treatments, to get the best results.

Avoid your heartburn triggers.

It’s entirely possible that your problem is the result of your fondness for eating certain foods that are notorious for causing heartburn. You may need to be careful about consuming:

  • Chocolate

  • Citrus fruit and juice

  • Spicy foods

  • Tomatoes or tomato sauce

  • Peppermint

  • Onions

  • Coffee

Two other common heartburn triggers that you may want to avoid are carbonated beverages and alcoholic drinks.

You might also consider how and when you eat, too. Eating smaller meals can help. And you might also allow several hours to elapse between dinnertime and bedtime so your body has a chance to digest some of that food. If you collapse in bed with a full stomach, it can put extra pressure on your lower esophageal sphincter, which in turn can allow some of that stomach acid to creep back through.

Opt for an antacid.

An over-the-counter antacid like Tums or Rolaids may be your saving grace. Inexpensive and easy to come by, these antacids work by neutralizing the acid in your stomach that causes the painful burning sensation. They won’t heal any damage to your esophagus that stomach acid may have already caused, but they will make you feel better. Take them as directed—and if you’re taking the tablets, be sure to chew them thoroughly.

However, be aware that many antacids also contain substances like sodium bicarbonate or magnesium, which can have a laxative effect. Your heartburn might improve, but you might also find yourself coping with stomach cramps, constipation or diarrhea as a result. The American Academy of Family Physicians suggests opting for an antacid that contains both magnesium hydroxide and aluminum hydroxide, so the ingredients that cause constipation and diarrhea counteract each other.

Try another type of drug.

Three other types of medications might offer you some relief, too:

  • H-2-receptor antagonists, or H2RAs, which are also known as histamine H2 blockers. These work by decreasing the amount of acid your stomach produces. They last longer than an antacid, but they don’t work as quickly. They’re available in both OTC and prescription strength, and they can have some significant side effects, including confusion, weakness or fatigue, bleeding and sore throat.

  • Proton pump inhibitors. Medications like Prevacid, Protonix, and Prilosec also work by reducing the amount of acid your stomach produces. It usually takes 24 hours before relief begins.

  • Promotility agents. If neither of the other medications help you, you might try a drug like metoclopramide that speeds up the digestive process, which reduces the amount of time the acid sits in your stomach—and the possibility that it will flow back up into the esophagus.

Change medications that cause heartburn.

Could your blood pressure medication or birth control pill be responsible, at least in part, for that horrible burning sensation in your esophagus and throat? Yep. You may be taking a medication that’s causing heartburn and not even realize it. Some other culprits are tricyclic antidepressants, dopamine drugs for conditions like Parkinson’s, calcium channel blockers, beta blockers, and even certain seasickness medications. Talk to your doctor about switching to another drug if you’ve eliminated other factors and can’t get rid of the heartburn.

Consider other lifestyle changes.

Even if you’re taking a medication that helps, it can’t hurt to embark upon a few other lifestyle changes, too.

  • Quit smoking. Cigarettes can weaken your lower esophageal sphincter.

  • Raise the head of your bed. Since lying down, especially if you’ve eaten recently, can make heartburn worse, elevating your head may help.

  • Stay active. Staying physically active and eating a healthy diet can help you maintain a healthy weight. When you’re overweight, those extra pounds can put pressure on that sphincter muscle, causing it to function less than effectively.

  • Wear loose fitting clothes. Give yourself a reason to loosen that belt.

If you suffer from severe, persistent heartburn, you may actually have what’s called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. The most common symptom of GERD is heartburn, but it can also show up as coughing, wheezing, trouble swallowing and chest pain. If you think you may have GERD, talk to your doctor about the appropriate treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 May 29
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  • GERD prevention starts with eating small meals, raising the head of your bed, and wearing loose clothing around your waist.
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