October 26, 2020 8 min read

If you find yourself dealing with heartburn, you’re not alone. Many people struggle with heartburn and acid reflux, which can cause recurring pain and discomfort that doesn’t allow you to live life to the fullest. To solve this problem, you must first understand what heartburn symptoms look like, what causes heartburn, and the potential solutions available in order to devise a treatment strategy that works for you. 


In this article, we will answer the following questions and address the following topics: 

  1. What is Heartburn?
  2. What are the Symptoms of Heartburn? 
  3. Why Am I Getting Heartburn? 
  4. How Long Does Heartburn Last? 
  5. Can Heartburn be a Sign of Something Serious? 
  6. How You Can Stop Heartburn
  7. When to See a Doctor 

What is Heartburn? 

Heartburn is when you experience a burning sensation in your chest, often directly behind your breastbone. It’s a common condition that many American adults deal with at some time or another. In fact, more than 60 million Americans report experiencing heartburn at least once a month. 


The symptoms of heartburn are usually caused by backed up stomach acid irritating the esophagus, a condition otherwise known as acid reflux. The esophagus, an essential part of the body’s gastrointestinal tract, is a tube that connects your throat to your stomach, and the food you consume passes through it before being digested. When stomach acid infiltrates the esophagus, it can inflame it, leading to discomfort, sharp pains, and the burning sensation that most people associate with heartburn. 

normal and reflux throat infographic

More often than not, heartburn can be treated at home by either using over the counter medications or making adjustments in your lifestyle. However, it’s not something that should be ignored—in addition to negatively affecting your quality of life, consistent heartburn and acid reflux can be indicative of more serious conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease. 


What are the Symptoms of Heartburn? 


The most common symptom of heartburn is an uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, burning sensation in the middle of your chest, near your sternum or breastbone. There are additional symptoms that some may experience which include, but are not limited to: 

  • A sour, bitter, or acidic taste in the back of your throat or mouth 
  • The feeling of food being stuck in your throat 
  • Coughing
  • Hoarseness

While heartburn can strike at any moment, it most often occurs after eating a large meal, lying down, or bending over. When you sit or stand upright, gravity lends a hand in keeping stomach acid in the stomach, but after adjusting to a sideways posture, it’s easier for stomach acid and bile to creep up into and irritate your esophagus. 

 

Why Am I Getting Heartburn? 

The name “heartburn” is actually quite misleading, since it has nothing to do with your heart. As stated above, heartburn is caused by stomach acid entering the esophagus, resulting in discomfort, pain, and irritation. While your stomach lining contains special protective cells that prevent the stomach acid from causing inflammation, your esophagus has no such protective coating, making it more susceptible to harm via stomach acid. 


As for why stomach acid makes its way into your esophagus, it’s typically due to a problem with the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is a clump of muscles located at the point where the esophagus meets the stomach. 


Under normal circumstances, the LES plays a key role in containing stomach acid within your stomach. It closes after food passes through the esophagus and on to the stomach, in order to prevent the food matter from coming back up. It can also open when gas builds up in your stomach and you feel the need to belch. 


Acid reflux takes place when there’s a problem with the LES and it doesn’t close as tightly as it should, thus allowing stomach acid to seep into the esophagus. There are two common causes of this problem. The first is overeating, where you put so much food inside your stomach that some of it forces its way back up into your esophagus. The second common cause is an excess amount of pressure on your stomach, most often a result of obesity or pregnancy. 


It’s not unusual for pregnant women in particular to seek out forms of pregnancy heartburn relief, as they can experience severe heartburn symptoms and acid reflux, especially around the third trimester. This is due to the immense pressure on their stomach, in addition to a shift in hormones. When you become pregnant, a hormone called progesterone that’s produced in the ovaries can affect how tightly your LES closes, which can in turn lead to heartburn. This heartburn only leads to more discomfort, so if you’re pregnant you should consider using MedCline’s unique Reflux Relief System, which is constructed using medical-grade materials in order to provide you with the most effective relief possible. 

pregnant woman with reflux holding chest

 

Your diet can also play a significant role in causing acid reflux and heartburn symptoms. Acidic foods and meals rich with high levels of fats and oils can inhibit the function of the LES or increase the amount of stomach acid you produce—if you eat these kinds of food regularly enough, they can end up being what causes heartburn everyday. 

Keep in mind that there are a number of other things that can either trigger or exacerbate acid reflux and heartburn symptoms. Here are a few relatively common contributing factors: 

  • Constipation
  • Side effects of certain medications
  • High stress levels
  • Lack of sleep 

How Long Does Heartburn Last? 

Depending on the severity of it, heartburn can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. The majority of people only experience symptoms in brief episodes, but they can last longer in more serious cases. As far as frequency, the American College of Gastroenterology points to several studies that suggest that more than 15 million Americans experience heartburn-related symptoms on a daily basis. 

infographic - how long does heartburn last?

Can Heartburn be a Sign of Something Serious? 

If you experience heartburn on a regular basis, it can eventually result in health problems, or even be a sign of a more urgent medical condition. For example, consistent irritation of your esophagus over a long period of time can lead to heavy inflammation that results in ulcers, which can cause health complications and serious issues like internal bleeding. 


Additionally, if you’re persistently bothered by heartburn symptoms and acid reflux and over-the-counter medications don’t seem to make the condition any better, you could have a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). 


GERD is a chronic digestive disorder where stomach acid or bile backs up into the esophagus, causing painful burning sensations in the chest area. The pain it produces can be so intense in some cases that it’s misinterpreted as a heart attack or a symptom of heart disease. The symptoms of the disease are very similar to run-of-the-mill acid reflux, only it happens with far greater frequency, to the point where it can interfere with your day-to-day life. 


People with asthma are more likely to develop GERD, but it can affect anyone, from infants to the elderly. While chest pain is the most telling symptom of GERD, there are also other less common symptoms such as: 

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excess saliva production
  • Chronic sore throat 

 

gerd common symptoms infographic

 

GERD can also adversely affect your dental hygiene. Over long periods of time, constant acid reflux can contribute to tooth decay and erode the enamel on your teeth, resulting in cavities, bad breath, and irritation in your gums. 


How You Can Stop Heartburn

Heartburn can put a damper on your life, which is why you should take steps to treat it. If you’ve been experiencing mild heartburn symptoms, then here are four ways to potentially treat it without visiting the doctor’s office. 


Medication 

Most of the time, it’s possible to treat heartburn at home using over-the-counter medications. Common medications used to fight heartburn that you can buy at the drugstore include:

  • Antacids
  • Acid blockers
  • Proton pump inhibitors (drugs that reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes) 

Diet

The kinds of food and liquids you consume can have a massive impact on the level and frequency with which you experience heartburn. Acidic foods in particular can cause heartburn symptoms in certain people. Here is a list of foods and liquids that can trigger heartburn, courtesy of cedars-sinai.org:

  • Spicy foods 
  • Citrus fruits 
  • Tomatoes 
  • Onions 
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint
  • Coffee

 

You could also try to eat smaller meals throughout the day as opposed to three large ones in order to prevent overfilling your stomach. After you finish eating, wait two to three hours before lying down so that your body has time to digest the food. And avoid the late-night snacking and eating right before bed, as laying down can make it easier for the stomach acid to move into your esophagus.


Make Lifestyle Adjustments

In addition to adjusting your diet, you should take a look at other aspects of your lifestyle and consider whether they could be contributing to your heartburn symptoms. Here are a few more examples of lifestyle changes that will likely cut down on the frequency and intensity of your heartburn and acid reflux symptoms: 

  • Quit smoking tobacco 
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight 
  • Drink ginger tea on a regular basis

Change Your Sleeping Position

If you find yourself experiencing particularly severe heartburn symptoms when lying down in bed at night, then consider changing the way you sleep. 


An acid reflux pillow can help put your body in an ideal position for relieving your symptoms at night. MedCline offers a patented three-component Sleep System that elevates your entire torso, helping to prevent stomach acid from seeping into your esophagus while you sleep. It’s a product that can provide you with relief and keep you comfortable at the same time, allowing you to get the rest and relaxation that you need. 

 

When to See a Doctor 

If you experience heartburn more than twice a week or if symptoms persist despite using over-the-counter medication, then you should probably visit your doctor. A doctor can run tests to check for heartburn complications and possibly diagnose you with more serious conditions such as GERD, the disease that can potentially be what causes chronic heartburn. Other symptoms that would likely necessitate a visit to the doctor’s office include:

  • Pain while swallowing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Blood in stool 

man visiting doctors office for gerd symptoms

 

If you are, in fact, only experiencing mild heartburn, doctors will commonly prescribe proton pump inhibitors such as Prilosec, Prevacid, Protonix, and Nexium. While these medications can help treat your heartburn and acid reflux, you should note that they do come with their own set of side effects, such as constipation and diarrhea. So have a discussion with your doctor to weigh the most effective treatment options for yourself. 


If, on the other hand, you are experiencing persistent and severe heartburn symptoms, your doctor may run tests to see if you have GERD. The doctor will first examine your medical history and conduct a simple physical examination before starting in on the testing for GERD. Common ways to test for GERD include:  

  • X-ray examination
  • Endoscopy—a small camera attached to a flexible tube is inserted down your throat in order to get a better view of your gastrointestinal tract 
  • Ambulatory acid probe test— an acid monitor is placed in your esophagus that indicates when stomach acid enters your esophagus, and measures for how long
  • Esophageal pH monitoring—a catheter capable of measuring pressure and movement is inserted into your esophagus 

If you’ve been struggling with heartburn symptoms or acid reflux, then take action and get treatment today, so you can get back to living your best life. 

References:

  1. “Acid Reflux.” American College of Gastroenterology, gi.org/topics/acid-reflux/. 
  2. “Heartburn.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 17 Apr. 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heartburn/symptoms-causes/syc-20373223. 
  3. Wedro, Benjamin. “Heartburn Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention on RxList.com.” RxList, RxList, 26 Apr. 2016, www.rxlist.com/heartburn/drugs-condition.htm. 
  4. “Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease: AAAAI.” The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/related-conditions/gastroesophageal-reflux-disease. 
  5. “Heartburn and Acid Reflux: What You Need to Know.” Cedars, 17 Feb. 2018, www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/what-causes-heartburn-and-acid-reflux.html.