Indigestion is often a sign of an underlying problem, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, or gallbladder disease, rather than a condition of its own.
Also called dyspepsia, it is defined as a persistent or recurrent pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen.
What Are the Symptoms of Indigestion?
The symptoms of indigestion include:
- Burning in the stomach or upper abdomen
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating (full feeling)
- Belching and gas
- Nausea and vomiting
- Acidic taste
- Growling stomach
These symptoms may increase in times of stress.
People often have heartburn (a burning sensation deep in the chest) along with indigestion. But heartburn is a different symptom that may be a sign of another problem.
Who Is at Risk for Indigestion?
People of all ages and genders are affected by indigestion. It's extremely common. A person's risk increases with:
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Use of drugs that irritate the stomach, such as aspirin and other pain relievers
- Conditions where there is an abnormality in the digestive tract, such as an ulcer
- Emotional problems, such as anxiety or depression
What Causes Indigestion?
Indigestion has many causes, including:
- Stomach cancer (rare)
- Gastroparesis (a condition where the stomach doesn't empty properly; this often occurs in people with diabetes)
- Stomach infections
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Thyroid disease
- Aspirin and other painkillers, such as NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen
- Estrogen and oral contraceptives
- Steroid medications
- Certain antibiotics
- Thyroid medicines
- Eating too much, eating too fast, eating high-fat foods, or eating during stressful situations
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Cigarette smoking
- Stress and fatigue
Indigestion is not caused by excess stomach acid.
Swallowing excessive air when eating may increase the symptoms of belching and bloating, which are often associated with indigestion.
Sometimes people have persistent indigestion that is not related to any of these factors. This type of indigestion is called functional or non-ulcer dyspepsia.
How Is Indigestion Diagnosed?
If you have indigestion, make an appointment to see your doctor. Because indigestion is such a broad term, it is helpful to provide your doctor with a precise description of the discomfort you are feeling. In describing the symptoms, try to define where in the abdomen the discomfort usually occurs.
Your doctor will rule out any underlying conditions that may be causing your symptoms. Your doctor may perform several blood tests and you may have X-rays of the stomach or small intestine. Your doctor may also suggest you have an upper endoscopy to look closely at the inside of the stomach. During the procedure, an endoscope -- a flexible tube that contains a light and a camera to produce images from inside the body -- is used to look inside your stomach.
What Is the Treatment for Indigestion?
Because indigestion is a symptom rather than a disease, treatment usually depends upon the underlying condition causing the indigestion.
Antacids help ease indigestion symptoms. They neutralize, or offset, the stomach acid that causes indigestion. Common over-the-counter (OTC) antacids are:
Histamine (H2) Blockers
H2 blockers lessen the amount of acid your stomach makes, so they can both stop and prevent indigestion symptoms. They take between 1 and 3 hours to take effect but work for several hours. If you take any prescription medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist before you use an H2 blocker because they can interact with certain other drugs. Common H2 blockers include:
- Cimetidine (Tagamet HB)
- Famotidine (Pepcid Complete or Pepcid AC, Zantac 360)
- Nizatidine (Axid, Axid AR)
Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs)
OTC PPIs also work by reducing the amount of acid your stomach makes, but they only treat frequent indigestion that happens two or more times per week. They take from 1 to 4 days to become effective. You can use them for up to 14 days, and up to three times per year. They can also interact with other medications, so check with your doctor or pharmacist before you use them. The most common PPIs that you can buy over the counter are:
- Esomeprazole (Nexium 24HR)
- Lansoprazole (Prevacid 24HR)
- Omeprazole and sodium bicarbonate (Zegerid OTC)
- Omeprazole magnesium (Prilosec OTC)
You might not need any treatment. Indigestion often goes away on its own after a few hours. But let your doctor know if your symptoms get worse.
There a number of home or natural remedies that some people claim will ease indigestion symptoms, including:
- Baking soda
- Apple cider vinegar
- Chewing gum
- Aloe vera juice
But unlike medications that are tested for safety and effectiveness, there are no guidelines to know if these remedies are safe and will work. Many things can affect how a remedy will work for you, including the cause of your indigestion, other medications you may be taking, and whether or not you’re pregnant. Check with your doctor before trying a natural remedy for indigestion.
How Can I Prevent Indigestion?
The best way to prevent indigestion is to avoid the foods and situations that seem to cause it. Keeping a food diary is helpful in identifying foods that cause indigestion. Here are some other suggestions:
- Eat small meals so the stomach does not have to work as hard or as long.
- Eat slowly.
- Try not to chew with your mouth open, talk while you chew, or eat too fast. This makes you swallow too much air, which can add to indigestion.
- Avoid foods that contain high amounts of acids, such as citrus fruits and tomatoes.
- Avoid spicy foods.
- Reduce or avoid foods and beverages that contain caffeine.
- If stress is a trigger for your indigestion, learn new methods for managing stress, such as relaxation and biofeedback techniques.
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking can irritate the lining of the stomach.
- Cut back on alcohol because it can also irritate the stomach lining.
- Avoid wearing tight-fitting garments because they tend to compress the stomach, which can cause its contents to enter the esophagus.
- Don't exercise with a full stomach. Rather, exercise before a meal or at least one hour after eating a meal.
- Don't lie down right after eating.
- Avoid late-night eating. Wait at least 3 hours after your last meal of the day before going to bed.
- Sleep with your head elevated (at least 6 inches) above your feet and use pillows to prop yourself up. This will help allow digestive juices to flow into the intestines rather than to the esophagus.
- Get to and stay at a healthy weight. Extra weight puts pressure on your stomach and lower esophagus.
If you don’t feel better after these changes, your doctor may prescribe medications for you.
When Should I Call the Doctor About Indigestion?
Because indigestion can be a sign of a more serious health problem, call your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Vomiting, blood in vomit, or vomit that looks like coffee grounds
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Black, tarry stools or visible blood in stools
- Severe pain in the abdomen
- Discomfort unrelated to eating
Symptoms similar to indigestion may be caused by heart attacks. If indigestion is unusual, accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, chest pain, or pain radiating to the jaw, neck, or arm, call 911 immediately.