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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

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Heartburn - Topic Overview

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.

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.

Persistent heartburn symptoms can be a sign of a more serious medical condition, such as severe inflammation of the esophagus or cancer of the stomach or esophagus.

Heartburn is more serious when it occurs with abdominal pain or bleeding.

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