Heartburn: Causes, Symptoms, First Aid Treatment and Prevention

Fact Checked

Heartburn is characterized by a painful, warm burning sensation in the throat or behind the sternum (breastbone). The sensation comes in wave-like motions. Despite its name, heartburn does not involve the heart but rather it is an irritation of the oesophagus due to the stomach acid. Typically, the pain starts in the chest area but spreads to the neck, throat and even as far as the jaw. It commonly occurs after eating. Heartburn is medically called as pyrosis or acid indigestion.

Heartburn should not be mistaken for acid reflux. Although they are almost similar, the latter pertains to the act of the stomach acid backs up into the oesophagus. The acid reflux is what causes the heartburn. Heartburn that occurs at least twice a week is typically associated with gastric reflux, one of the main symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It is a common disease that is rarely a serious symptom.

Causesof Heartburn

When a person swallows, the lower oesophageal sphincter relaxes to allow food and liquid to flow down into the stomach and closes again.The lower oesophageal sphincter may relax and weaken causing amounts of stomach acid to flow back up into the oesophagus.The following may lead to the stomach acid regurgitating up into the oesophagus.

  • GERD
  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Hiatal hernia
  • Food and drinks
    • Chocolates
    • Acidic foods and juices
    • Alcohol and caffeine
    • Carbonated beverages
    • Fried and fatty foods
  • Medications
    • Aspirin
    • Ibuprofen
    • Naproxen

Symptoms of Heartburn

The main symptom of heartburn is heartburn on its own. Heartburn is not a disease but a symptom. It is characterized by:

  • Burning pain the chest that generally occurs after eating and may happen at night
  • Pain is aggravated when lying down or bending over
  • Warm discomfort coming from the chest that has an upward motion

First Aid Treatment for Heartburn

Heartburns do not necessarily need medical treatment. Seek medical advice if they occur repeatedly. For home treatment, the following can be done that may help relieve of symptoms:

  • Avoid lying down or bending as this may worsen the pain.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) antacids to neutralize stomach acid. Follow directions given by the manufacturer. However, this will not reduce oesophageal inflammation
  • OTC H2 blocker medications are available to decrease acid production in the stomach such as, cimetidine, nizatidine, famotidine and ranitidine.
  • To block acid production and heal the oesophageal inflammation, OTC proton pump inhibitors are available in the drugstores.

Prevention of Heartburn

Although the following hints are not capable of completely preventing heartburn from occurring, these hints can reduce risks of developing heartburn.

  • Avoid eating the foods and drinks that are known to trigger heartburn. Identify the personal cause of heartburn and avoid this.
  • If one is overweight, opt for a healthy, well-balanced diet and attempt to get into a healthy weight.
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes, especially around the waist to avoid putting pressure on the lower oesophageal sphincter and the abdomen.
  • Eat smaller but more frequent meals.
  • Wait at least three hours before lying down after a meal. Elevate the head in the bed.
  • Do not smoke.

Disclaimer: Do not use the information given to diagnose or substitute for medical treatment. To learn how to manage gastrointestinal problems, such as heartburns, join in First Aid Courses.

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