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Heartburn Treatments: What You Need To Know


Jennifer Larson

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Digestive Investigator

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Heartburn Treatments: What You Need To Know

To combat heartburn, you may need to incorporate several strategies, including changes in lifestyle and medication.

If you’ve ever clutched your chest and winced after a big meal, you’ve felt the burn. Heartburn occurs when the acid from your stomach flows back up into your esophagus and even your throat, causing that painful burning sensation in your chest. Or it might feel like a bitter or sour fluid at the back of your throat. It often occurs when your lower esophageal sphincter, which is a band of muscle at the bottom of your esophagus, has weakened and allows your stomach contents to leak out instead of remaining in your stomach.  

Heartburn can be caused by a number of factors, such as pregnancy, hiatal hernia, and even certain medications. Fortunately, a few simple lifestyle changes reduce or even eliminate the problem for many people. Others may find they need to incorporate several strategies, including changes and medications or other treatments, to get the best results.

Medical Reviewer: Robert Williams, MD Last Review Date: Apr 9, 2013

Avoid your heartburn triggers.

It’s entirely possible that your problem is the result of your fondness for eating certain foods that are notorious for causing heartburn. You may need to be careful about consuming:

  • Chocolate

  • Citrus fruit and juice

  • Spicy foods

  • Tomatoes or tomato sauce

  • Peppermint

  • Onions

  • Coffee

Two other common heartburn triggers that you may want to avoid are carbonated beverages and alcoholic drinks.

You might also consider how and when you eat, too. Eating smaller meals can help. And you might also allow several hours to elapse between dinnertime and bedtime so your body has a chance to digest some of that food. If you collapse in bed with a full stomach, it can put extra pressure on your lower esophageal sphincter, which in turn can allow some of that stomach acid to creep back through.

Opt for an antacid.

An over-the-counter antacid like Tums or Rolaids may be your saving grace. Inexpensive and easy to come by, these antacids work by neutralizing the acid in your stomach that causes the painful burning sensation. They won’t heal any damage to your esophagus that stomach acid may have already caused, but they will make you feel better. Take them as directed—and if you’re taking the tablets, be sure to chew them thoroughly.

However, be aware that many antacids also contain substances like sodium bicarbonate or magnesium, which can have a laxative effect. Your heartburn might improve, but you might also find yourself coping with stomach cramps, constipation or diarrhea as a result. The American Academy of Family Physicians suggests opting for an antacid that contains both magnesium hydroxide and aluminum hydroxide, so the ingredients that cause constipation and diarrhea counteract each other.

Try another type of drug.

Three other types of medications might offer you some relief, too:

  • H-2-receptor antagonists, or H2RAs, which are also known as histamine H2 blockers. These work by decreasing the amount of acid your stomach produces. They last longer than an antacid, but they don’t work as quickly. They’re available in both OTC and prescription strength, and they can have some significant side effects, including confusion, weakness or fatigue, bleeding and sore throat.

  • Proton pump inhibitors. Medications like Prevacid, Protonix, and Prilosec also work by reducing the amount of acid your stomach produces. It usually takes 24 hours before relief begins.

  • Promotility agents. If neither of the other medications help you, you might try a drug like metoclopramide that speeds up the digestive process, which reduces the amount of time the acid sits in your stomach—and the possibility that it will flow back up into the esophagus.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: May 16, 2016

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