Heartburn

… more than half of all pregnant women will experience occasional symptoms of heartburn.

Karen Reynolds, Pharmacist, Ottawa, ON

If the burning discomfort of heartburn is all to too familiar to you, you’re not alone. Lots of people regularly suffer from heartburn.

The medical name for heartburn is gastroesophageal reflux disease. It’s often referred to as GERD, or reflux, for short. Acid indigestion is another more commonly used name. These names help describe what causes heartburn.

Heartburn occurs when the acidic contents of your stomach rise up or “reflux” into your esophagus, or food pipe. The acid irritates the lining of the esophagus causing “acid indigestion”, or the burning sensation in the centre of your chest called “heartburn.”

This burning sensation can last for as long as 2 hours. Some people will also experience a sour or bitter taste in their mouth.

While heartburn becomes more common as we get older, it can occur at any age. Even children and young infants can suffer from it and more than half of all pregnant women will experience occasional symptoms of heartburn.

Sometimes heartburn can be confused with the pain from a heart attack. Pain in the chest that travels down your arm and is accompanied by sweating and shortness of breath is more likely to be caused by a heart attack. Pain that begins after eating, stays in the chest and gets worse when you lie down is more likely to be heartburn. However, if you are ever in doubt about the kind of pain you’re experiencing, see a doctor immediately.

Heartburn can often be controlled by making some of the following changes to your diet and lifestyle:

  • Avoid citrus juices and foods that are high in fat, tomato-based, spicy, or contain mint, alcohol or caffeine (tea, coffee, cola, chocolate)
  • Reduce weight, if necessary
  • Stop or reduce smoking
  • Eat slow and don’t overeat
  • Avoid snacking before bed
  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid wearing belts or clothing that is tight around the waist
  • Elevate the head of the bed 10 to 15 cm ( 4 to 6 inches)

You don’t have to make all these changes at once. Start by choosing just one or two and work up to the others. This will help to increase your chances of success.

In addition to these diet and lifestyle changes, a number of products that are available without a prescription can help relieve your symptoms. Antacids containing calcium carbonate or combinations of aluminum and magnesium work by neutralizing stomach acid. Alginates form an antacid foam that floats on the stomach contents and protects the esophagus when reflux occurs. Drugs such as famotidine, ranitidine, called H2 blockers, decrease the amount of acid that your stomach secretes. Some of these products are sold in both tablet and liquid form. Read the product label carefully to determine if the tablets need to be chewed before swallowing in order to be effective.

If you need help in selecting a product, especially if you’re pregnant, ask your pharmacist. If you find that changes to your diet and lifestyle combined with use of an over-the-counter product does not help your heartburn, or if your heartburn symptoms are getting worse, see your doctor. Also see your doctor if your heartburn symptoms occur regularly each week (4 out of 7 days) for at least 3 months. this condition is called chronic heartburn and it needs to be evaluated by your doctor.