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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

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Heartburn 101

Got a burning, burping feeling in your chest? Learn what causes it, how you can manage it, and when to see your doctor.

Heartburn Treatments

If lifestyle changes don’t help and your heartburn doesn’t let up, your doctor might recommend an antacid to neutralize stomach acids or an acid-blocking drug, such as an H2 blocker. Then, Marrero says, "if someone is having really severe symptoms almost every day, we will go to a stronger, more potent medicine called a proton pump inhibitor, or PPI." Recently, the FDA warned consumers about the risk of hip, wrist, and spine fractures with PPIs. Marrero says these drugs are still safe, but he advises his patients to bone up on extra calcium and vitamin D while taking them.

You also can try other less traditional methods for heartburn relief, like chewing a stick of sugar-free gum. Chewing stimulates the production of saliva, a natural acid buffer. Plus, when you chew gum, you swallow more, which pushes acid back down your throat.

Some nondrug treatments have been used for heartburn with some success. Chamomile has anti-inflammatory properties, and there is some evidence that licorice can form a protective barrier against stomach acids, but scientific research supporting their use is preliminary at this point. Before using any herbal remedy, check with your doctor to make sure it doesn’t have side effects and won't interact with other medications you’re taking.

Sometimes, those with heartburn just need a little relaxation. "Stress doesn’t necessarily cause acid reflux, but it always makes things worse," Marrero says. Acupuncture, meditation, and other stress-busting therapies have helped some of his patients.

When to Go to the Doctor for Your Heartburn

Most of the time, heartburn is more of an annoyance than a major medical issue. Frequent heartburn is a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), otherwise known as acid reflux. In rare cases, acid reflux can turn into something more serious.

When is it time to get help for heartburn? People who have heartburn more than twice a week should talk to their doctor, says Marrero. He says to be on the watch for these symptoms: unexplained weight loss, anemia, or food getting stuck in the throat when swallowing. The constant flow of stomach acids can scar the esophagus, narrowing it so much that you have trouble swallowing. In some people, the cells of the esophagus can actually begin to change and turn cancerous. An early checkup is the best thing you can do to ensure your health and prevent any possible, though rare, complications.

Perlman-Smith’s heartburn eventually got so serious that she turned to her doctor for help. Medication relieved her symptoms, and she learned to use a little caution -- especially when it comes to spicy foods and alcohol. "Today, I try to stay away from things that would make my heartburn flare up," she says.

Reviewed on July 08, 2010

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