What is heartburn?
Heartburn is a burning sensation that is felt in the area behind the sternum (chest bone). Normally when you swallow food or beverage it travels down your esophagus and a valve or sphincter at the base of your esophagus opens to permit entrance into your stomach. The stomach contains powerful acids which help break down food into nutrients that our bodies can use. The lining of the stomach is made to safely contain the powerful acids that reside there. The esophagus is not. Heartburn occurs when the sphincter or valve doesn’t close properly. Sometimes this happens if we emit a burp which allows gas to escape from the stomach. The gas may be accompanied by acid. This produces a temporary mild burning sensation, which would be of no concern, but if the sphincter persists in not fully closing properly, other problems may be present and have the potential to become quite serious.
What happens to the esophagus if exposed to stomach acid?
Temporary and infrequent exposure of the esophagus to stomach acid isn’t a problem, but repeated exposure to stomach acid over time can result in scaring and stricture (narrowing) of the esophagus.This can make it hard to swallow food. If it goes untreated it can develop into Barrett’s esophagus which is a pre-cancerous condition and can develop into cancer.
What can I do to prevent heartburn?
Mild, occasional heartburn can be prevented by watching what you ate previous to getting the heartburn. Different people have different triggers. The most common culprits include alcohol, citrus fruits and juices, carbonated beverages, coffee and caffeine, chocolate, tomato sauce, fatty foods, mint, and, of course, spicy foods.
The following tips may also be helpful:
- Eat smaller meals
- Avoid foods that cause you gas
- Avoid fatty foods as fat takes longer to digest.
- Try to eat dinner a few hours before bed as the stomach contents can flow up when lying down
- Elevate the head of your bed a few inches with blocks
- Chew gum after you eat to increase salivation. The extra saliva swallowed will flow down the esophagus and take the refluxed acid back to the stomach
Are there any medications I can take for heartburn?
There are many heartburn medications out there ranging from Tums and Rolaids to Zantac, and now Pepcid, and Nexium that are all over the counter. They can be very effective so there is no reason to suffer from heartburn. Many of these medications use to be prescription only, so talk to your doctor before doing any self-medication. It depends on the frequency, severity, and length of time you’ve had heartburn.
Want to find out more?
Heartburn/GERD Health Center
Helen Trowsdale, President of AA Care Services, is a nurse administrator with over 30 years of experience as a BSN, psychiatric nurse, and geriatric care manager with adults as well as pediatrics in hospitals, private duty home health care agencies, and residential home health care. Her team of caregivers are dedicated to serving their clients with home care in San Antonio, New Braunfels, and Austin; providing clients with consistent, quality care while minimizing the number of caregivers in the home. Learn more about AA Care Services.