Heartburn is a burning sensation felt at the upper or central part of the chest. It is caused by reflux of acid content in the stomach backing up into the oesophagus (food pipe). It is a symptom of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. Some people experience this after taking dried, fried or spicy foods or drinking certain beverages. Its severity range from mild to severe and can continue for a long period. The burning sensation can worsen or can be brought on by lying flat or on the right side. Pregnancy also tends to aggravate heartburn. If symptoms become severe to the point of radiating to the arms and causing shortness of breath you might need a professional help.

What Causes Heartburn?

Heartburn is caused when the oesophagus (the tube that connects your mouth to the stomach) has a tight band of muscles at the lower end called (lower oesophageal sphincter [LES]) that closes after the food enters the stomach and prevents the stomach contents to re-enter the oesophagus. If this sphincter weakens or relaxes at the wrong time, acid can back up into the oesophagus.

Predisposing factors

  • Certain foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, onions and garlic can relax the oesophageal sphincter muscles and cause heartburn.
  • Overeating
  • Pressure on the stomach e.g., obesity, pregnancy, constipation

Signs and symptoms

The common symptom of heartburn is burning sensation in the chest. Others include:

  • Sour taste in the mouth
  • Feeling of food stuck in the throat
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Dry cough

Other severe signs show the need to visit a doctor as quick as possible.

  • Radiating pain to the arm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness

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Diagnosis of heartburn

Doctors can confirm heartburn after a comprehensive health history and physical exams. However, certain investigations can be carried out.

  • Oesophageal PH Test
  • Upper endoscopy
  • Barium meal
  • Upper GI Series

Treatment for heartburn

The following treatment measures can help to prevent or relieve heartburn.

  1. Lifestyle changes
  2. Medications


  1. Lifestyle changes
  • Ensure good weight control to reduce pressure on the stomach
  • Quit smoking as it interferes with proper functioning of the oesophageal sphincter muscles.
  • Drink enough water after a meal to prevent constipation so as to limit pressure on the stomach.
  • Avoid spicy, fried or dried foods that can irritate the gastrointestinal tract like tomatoes, citrus fruits, garlic and onions
  • Avoid drinking alcohol and beverages that trigger heartburn.
  • Elevate head with a pillow or bed or sit upright when experiencing heartburn to decrease acidic reflux.

Read this also: What is that burning stomach pain?


  1. Medications

These medications used to treat heartburn falls into three categories

  • Antacids: These drugs neutralize the acid contents in the stomach e.g. magnesium sulphate and aluminium hydroxide.
  • Histamine blockers: These medications are named after the receptor they block (H-2 blockers). They reduce the production of acid and offer quick relief than antacids they include ranitidine, nizatidine, cimetidine and famotidine. Depending on the strength they are available over-the-counter and by prescription.
  • Proton pump inhibitors: It blocks acid production until the oesophagus heals. It is long acting and available over- the – counter and by prescription, for example, omeprazole, lansoprazole





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