The acid that helps digest food is very strong. But while your stomach can handle it, the more sensitive esophagus can’t.
Stomach acid is supposed to stay in your stomach. But if a faulty valve at the top of your stomach is leaky, acid can wash (or “reflux”) up, causing a burning sensation called heartburn, which has nothing to do with your heart.
In many cases, you prevent heartburn by eating less, avoiding trigger foods, and eating more slowly. But if changing your habits doesn’t bring relief, there are plenty of over-the-counter and prescription medicines that can help cool the burn.
Before you choose one, get to know the options. And keep in mind that sometimes what you think is heartburn is something else. So before you start any heartburn treatment, it’s best to see a doctor to rule out other issues.
The oldest and best-known medicines for treating heartburn, they have remained popular because they’re fast-acting, inexpensive, available without a prescription, and are safe for most people when used as directed. Maalox, Mylanta, Rolaids, and Tums are examples.
How do they work? Antacids neutralize acids in the stomach (think: anti-acid). You can take them to treat heartburn that has already started. If you ate a spicy dinner and have heartburn symptoms, antacids are probably your best bet to put out that fire.
Some are tablets. Others are sold as liquids. Tablets take longer to act and aren’t as strong as the liquid, but many people find the tablets to be more convenient. For faster relief, chew them well before swallowing.
How soon do they take effect? They can start to ease your symptoms in as little as 5 minutes. The relief may last as little as half an hour or as long as 3 hours.. Antacids won’t prevent future bouts of heartburn or heal any damage in your esophagus.
Side effects: Your side effects may depend on how much you take and how often you take them. If you only take them every now and then, you may not have any. But some people who use antacids may get diarrhea or constipation. If you have heart or kidney problems, you should talk to your doctor before taking them.
The bottom line: If your heartburn is mild and due to something you ate, an antacid is probably your best option. It will work quickly and there’s little downside. But if your heartburn is more severe, or it happens more than twice a week, you may need a stronger medicine.