What is Heartburn?
Heartburn is a burning sensation that rises from your stomach or lower chest up towards your throat. Occasionally it may feel like food is coming back up, and some people get an acid or bitter taste in the back of the mouth. Heartburn can last for several hours and is often worse after eating, or when lying down or bending over. Heartburn is the most common symptom of reflux.
1. Digestive Health Foundation, Gastroenterological Society Of Australia. Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease in Adults. Guidelines for Clinicians. 3rd edition, September 2001.
What is Reflux?
Reflux occurs when acid in your stomach, which is there to help you digest your food, rises up into your oesophagus (the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach), causing pain, irritation and discomfort.
For some people, the pain of heartburn is the only symptom experienced; others may have a range of symptoms. Other common symptoms of reflux include:
regurgitation (when fluid or food comes back into the mouth)
sudden filling of the mouth with saliva
persistent dry cough
chest pain (if you are experiencing chest pain, contact your doctor immediately).
Do you suffer from any of these symptoms on 2 or more days a week? Take the Heartburn check.
What causes reflux?
Normally, the contents of your stomach are prevented from moving up into your oesophagus by a ring of muscle (the lower oesophageal sphincter). This acts as a one-way valve, allowing food to enter your stomach but not to exit the same way. Sometimes this valve does not work properly and allows stomach acid to rise up into your oesophagus. Unlike your stomach, your oesophagus does not have a protective lining, so when it is exposed to the acid it may become irritated and painful.
If reflux occurs frequently, it may cause inflammation and even ulceration of your oesophagus, which may need to be treated by your doctor (see How serious is it?).
Some of the following things may make your heartburn or other reflux symptoms worse.
Certain types of food, such as fatty or spicy foods, can trigger heartburn. Large meals may increase pressure in your stomach causing acid to rise more easily. Lying down soon after eating also allows acid to enter your oesophagus more easily.
The increased pressure on your stomach from the baby may increase the risk of heartburn.
Smoking may aggravate heartburn in some people.
Excess weight puts extra pressure on your stomach.
Wearing tight clothes
Tight waistbands or belts can put extra pressure on your stomach.
Bending allows stomach acid to enter your oesophagus more easily.
Some medications may aggravate heartburn; for example, some of the anti-inflammatory medications commonly used to treat arthritis, pain or inflammation.
If you are experiencing heartburn, ask your doctor about the medications that you are taking.
How serious is it?
Most people experience reflux occasionally, but some suffer from it more regularly. If you experience heartburn or other symptoms of reflux more than twice a week, or your heartburn is interfering with your daily life, you may have gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). GORD can have a significant impact on quality of life and may damage your oesophagus if it is not treated appropriately.
If you have GORD, refluxed stomach acid may inflame and damage the lining of your oesophagus. It is not possible to tell from your symptoms whether or not you have damage to your oesophagus. That’s why it’s important to see your doctor if you experience symptoms more than twice a week. If left untreated, GORD may also lead to more serious complications. Fortunately, many of these complications can be avoided with proper monitoring.
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