Coliseum Health System - March 25, 2020

Heartburn is extremely common. Sixty million Americans experience at least one episode every month and some studies report that more than 15 million Americans have symptoms every day. If you’re one of the many people who live with the discomfort of heartburn, there’s good news. You can find ways to treat and prevent the condition – it’s all about understanding your triggers.

Heartburn Explained

Heartburn is usually associated with something called acid reflux, which is when stomach acid flows backward (reflux) into the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat and the stomach. During normal digestion, a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens to allow food to pass into the stomach and then quickly tightens to prevent backflow into the esophagus. If the LES malfunctions, contents from the stomach, including food and corrosive digestive juices, can rise back into the esophagus. While stomach lining is acid-resistant, the esophagus lining is not. When acid refluxes, it can get inflamed or irritated, causing a burning sensation.

Anything that increases stomach acid or relaxes the LES can contribute to heartburn. Some common causes include eating large meals, obesity, smoking, certain medications, and pregnancy.  Food triggers are different for everyone, but chocolate, coffee, alcohol, tomatoes and tomato-based foods, spicy foods and peppermint are common offenders for those with occasional heartburn. Heartburn is also associated with fatty foods (including those with healthy fat like avocados) because they take longer to digest. Heartburn often gets worse when lying down or bending over, especially immediately after consuming a meal.

When heartburn becomes frequent

Sometimes heartburn may be a symptom of a more severe problem like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is the chronic form of acid reflux. If your acid reflux occurs more than twice a week for a few weeks, it may be due to GERD. Americans are no stranger to GERD either – it affects around 20 percent of the population.

In addition to burning or sharp chest pain, symptoms of GERD can include regurgitation (when food or stomach fluids flow back into your mouth), nausea, a recurring sour or bitter taste in your mouth, difficulty swallowing, sore throat, dry cough, bad breath, damage to tooth enamel, wheezing or repeatedly needing to clear your throat.

When to see the doctor

Over time, reoccurring heartburn or GERD can lead to serious health problems, such as inflammation of the esophagus (esophagitis), a narrowing of your esophagus (esophageal stricture), respiratory problems (caused when stomach acid gets into your lungs), ulcers of the esophagus and Barrett’s esophagus, a condition in which the cells lining the esophagus become abnormal. If you think you have GERD, it’s important to schedule a visit to your doctor.  Other symptoms that should prompt a visit to your healthcare provider include:

  • frequent vomiting
  • vomit that contains blood or looks like coffee grounds
  • black stool
  • painful swallowing or trouble swallowing food
  • weight loss
  • coughing or wheezing
  • worsening symptoms after treatment

If at any time you suspect your pain might actually be a heart attack, which can be mistaken for digestive problems, seek immediate medical attention. Whether your heartburn is an infrequent nuisance or a chronic condition, a combination of lifestyle changes, preventative measures and guidance from a healthcare professional should help towards alleviating your pain. If you need help finding a physician, visit the “Find a Doctor” section of or call (478) 746-4646.