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America Asks About Heartburn & GERD

Heartburn Worry: Serious or Not?

What you need to know about heartburn -- when to worry, when not, what to do.
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Note the Time Your Heartburn Symptoms Occur

Think, too, about when the heartburn occurs. Galier says if it happens after a big meal, and it's just the burning in the chest, with no other symptoms, it’s more than likely heartburn or indigestion. But if you have any doubt, it's wise to ask your doctor for an evaluation.

"If you have chest pain after a meal, it's more likely to be reflux," agrees Glenn Eisen, MD, MPH, professor of medicine and director of endoscopy at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. But that's not a perfect test, he says. "It could be cardiac."

Phil Katz, MD, says that knowing what "classic" heartburn is like may help. Katz is president-elect of the American College of Gastroenterology and clinical professor of medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

“The classic heartburn symptom,” he tells WebMD, “is burning that starts at the upper stomach or lower breastbone and progresses upward and occurs after a meal or when bending over." He adds, "It's rapidly relieved by an antacid within a few minutes.”

Is There Anything Besides Eating That Leads to Heartburn?

Besides eating a heavy meal, heavy lifting can cause heartburn, says Galier. So can exercise. And lying flat, especially after eating a big meal, can lead to heartburn, too. 

People who are overweight or obese are more likely to suffer, Eisen says, noting that some people think only obesity raises heartburn risk. He also points out that pregnant women can suffer heartburn. He says that’s probably because elevated levels of the hormone progesterone cause a temporary weakness in the LES.

What's "Normal" With Heartburn?

"Heartburn should never be considered normal," says Galier. Food is often the culprit. People with heartburn typically may be sensitive to foods such as chocolate, carbonated beverages, peppermint, coffee, citrus foods, fried and fatty foods, and spicy foods.

Having heartburn more than occasionally can reduce your quality of life. It can affect not just what you eat, but how you sleep and what activities you do.

And if heartburn from acid reflux persists and you don't get treatment, complications can occur. They include damaging inflammation of the esophagus that affects the lining and causes bleeding. Another potential complication is Barrett's esophagus. With Barrett's esophagus the cells that line the esophagus become abnormal. That, in turn, boosts the risk of esophageal cancer.

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