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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

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Heartburn - Topic Overview

Heartburn is a feeling of burning, warmth, heat, or pain that often starts in the upper abdomen just beneath the lower breastbone (sternum). This discomfort may spread in waves upward into your throat, and you may have a sour taste in your mouth. Heartburn is sometimes called indigestion, acid regurgitation, sour stomach, or pyrosis. It is not caused by problems with your heart, although sometimes heart problems can feel like heartburn. See a picture of heartburn camera.gif.

Heartburn may cause problems with swallowing, burping, nausea, or bloating. These symptoms can sometimes last up to 2 hours or longer. In some people, heartburn symptoms may cause sleep problems, a chronic cough, asthma, wheezing, or choking episodes.

Heartburn usually is worse after eating or made worse by lying down or bending over. It gets better if you sit or stand up.

Almost everyone will have troubles with heartburn now and then.

Heartburn occurs more frequently in adults than in children. Many women have heartburn every day when they are pregnant. This is because the growing uterus puts increasing upward pressure on the stomach.

Symptoms of heartburn and symptoms of a heart attack may feel the same. Sometimes your heartburn symptoms may mean a more serious problem and need to be checked by your doctor.

Dyspepsia is a medical term that is used to describe a vague feeling of fullness, gnawing, or burning in the chest or upper belly, especially after eating. A person may describe this feeling as "gas." Other symptoms may occur at the same time, such as belching, rumbling noises in the abdomen, increased flatus, poor appetite, and a change in bowel habits. Causes of dyspepsia can vary from minor to serious.

Heartburn occurs when food and stomach juices back up (reflux) into the esophagus, which is the tube that leads from the throat to the stomach. This process is called gastroesophageal reflux camera.gif. Common causes of reflux include:

  • Incomplete closing of the valve (the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES) between the esophagus and the stomach.
  • Foods and drinks, such as chocolate, peppermint, fried foods, fatty foods, sugars, coffee, carbonated drinks, and alcohol. After heartburn occurs, the backflow of stomach juices can cause the esophagus to become sensitive to other foods, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, spicy foods, garlic, and onions. Eating these foods may cause more heartburn.
  • Pressure on the stomach caused by obesity, frequent bending over and lifting, tight clothes, straining with bowel movements, vigorous exercise, and pregnancy.
  • Smoking and use of other tobacco products.
  • Prescription and nonprescription medicines, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, prednisone, iron, potassium, antihistamines, and sleeping pills.
  • A hiatal hernia camera.gif, which occurs when a small portion of the stomach pushes upward through the diaphragm, which is the muscle that separates the lungs from the abdomen.
  • Stress, which can increase the amount of acid your stomach makes and cause your stomach to empty more slowly.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 11, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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