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 .
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.
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.
Causes of heartburn
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 . 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 , 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.
Severity of heartburn
Mild heartburn occurs about once a month. Moderate heartburn occurs about once a week.
Severe heartburn occurs every day and can cause problems such as trouble swallowing, bleeding, or weight loss. Heartburn with other symptoms, such as hoarseness, a feeling that food is stuck in your throat, tightness in your throat, a hoarse voice, wheezing, asthma, dental problems, or bad breath, may be caused by a more serious problem, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). A persistent inflammation of the lining of the esophagus occurs in GERD and can lead to other health problems. Heartburn may also be related to an infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria.
Heartburn is more serious when it occurs with abdominal pain or bleeding.
- Abdominal pain, especially pain located directly below the breastbone, may be a sign of more serious problems, such as heart disease, peptic ulcer disease, gallbladder disease, a tear in the esophagus, or inflammation of the stomach (gastritis). For more information, see the topic Abdominal Pain, Age 11 and Younger or Abdominal Pain, Age 12 and Older.
- Vomiting of blood may mean bleeding in the digestive tract, often from the esophagus or stomach. If you have bleeding in the esophagus, stomach, or part of the small intestine attached to the stomach (duodenum), stools may be dark red or black and tarry. Large amounts of bleeding can lead to shock, a life-threatening condition. For more information, see the topic Nausea and Vomiting, Age 12 and Older.
Heartburn in children
Almost all babies spit up, especially newborns. Spitting up decreases when the muscles of the esophagus, which is the muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach, become more coordinated. This process can take as little as 6 months or as long as 1 year. Spitting up is not the same thing as vomiting. Vomiting is forceful and repeated. Spitting up may seem forceful but usually occurs shortly after feeding, is effortless, and causes no discomfort.
Children who vomit frequently after eating during the first 2 years of life have increased chances of having heartburn and reflux problems, such as GERD, later in life. Children with reflux problems also have increased chances of other problems, such as sinusitis, laryngitis, asthma, pneumonia, and dental problems. For more information, see the topic Nausea and Vomiting, Age 11 and Younger.
The treatment of heartburn depends on how severe your heartburn is and what other symptoms you have. Home treatment measures and medicines that you can buy without a prescription usually will relieve mild to moderate heartburn. It is important to see your doctor if heartburn occurs frequently and home treatment does not relieve your symptoms.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.