While it’s common for adults to experience occasional heartburn from acid reflux, as time passes it can become more frequent and irritating. Heartburn is considered troublesome if it occurs two or more times per week or is associated with trouble swallowing, chronic cough, or painful swallowing. Chronic acid reflux can lead to more serious health issues down the road.
Heartburn, or acid reflux, is a burning pain or pressure in the chest and the sensation of gastric contents refluxing into the mouth. These symptoms frequently occur after eating or when lying down. It occurs when stomach acid refluxes up into the esophagus, past the lower esophageal sphincter. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the term doctors use when acid reflux causes bothersome symptoms or damages the esophagus.
Certain foods and drinks can trigger heartburn. Additionally, being overweight or pregnant can place extra pressure on the stomach, which can also trigger heartburn. The main anatomical factor is an incompetent gastroesophageal junction, which can be caused by a hiatal hernia.
In addition to pressure or a burning sensation in the chest, you may experience the following:
- A hot, acidic, or bitter taste in your mouth after eating a meal
- A burning sensation in your throat
- Pain in your chest
GERD and heartburn aren't the same but are related. GERD is a more severe form of acid reflux, the condition that causes heartburn. It is more frequent (occurring at least two times per week) and is considered a chronic condition.
Common GERD symptoms include painful burning sensations in the chest after eating, nausea, and excessive belching. GERD requires treatment in order to avoid long-term problems.
“Untreated GERD can lead to Barrett's esophagus, a precursor to esophageal cancer,” explains Dr. Piotr Sowa, a Summit Health gastroenterologist who is trained to perform transoral incisionless fundoplication (TIF), a novel endoscopic procedure that does not require surgery to treat GERD. “I find that a lot of patients 'just deal' with GERD symptoms but don't realize it can cause serious illness.”
Luckily, mild cases of heartburn don't require drastic treatment. For example, if you eat a large meal and experience mild acid reflux, antacids will reduce the amount of acid in the stomach and help the discomfort dissipate.
Although heartburn triggers vary from person to person, there are foods that are more likely to allow stomach acid to rise up into the esophagus. Some of these more common foods and drinks include:
- Red wine and alcohol
- Coffee or other caffeinated beverages
- Citrus fruit, like lemons and oranges
- Fatty foods
- Spicy foods
Eating healthy is a great way to promote well-being, but you can also determine which foods are most troublesome for you and work to eliminate them from your diet. A great way to go about doing this is to start a journal to track your heartburn triggers. Monitor what you eat, share findings with your doctor, and modify your meals to accommodate your condition. You can also start a plan to diversify with healthy foods, which can help you avoid heartburn and acid reflux altogether.
Another great tip: Do not eat right before bedtime. Dinner needs time to fully digest, and the physical act of laying down worsens potential heartburn symptoms.
If your heartburn symptoms become more frequent and are severe enough to disrupt your daily life, and lifestyle changes coupled with over-the-counter medications such as antacids and histamine blockers aren’t helping, you may want to explore other medication options with your doctor or one of our gastroenterologists.
If symptoms persist despite prescribed medication, your doctor may recommend a surgical or endoscopic procedure to restore competence in your gastroesophageal junction.