Heartburn is an extremely common ailment. In fact, research shows that nearly one-third of Americans have heartburn at least once a month and 10% of them experience it almost every day. One survey showed that over half of the people with heartburn suffer from symptoms both during the day and at night and more than 75% of them said that heartburn keeps them awake at night. Because it affects so many people, we get a lot of questions from patients about heartburn. Today, we’re answering some of the most common heartburn FAQ’s.

What is heartburn?

Heartburn is characterized by a painful burning feeling in your chest or throat. It happens when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus—the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach.

What causes heartburn?

At the bottom of your esophagus you have a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) that normally prevents foods and acid from coming back up. Heartburn occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter does not close all the way. Heartburn that’s experienced on a chronic level is often a symptom of acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Do spicy foods cause heartburn?

Many substances directly irritate the lining of the esophagus and can contribute to heartburn. These include spicy foods, citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes and tomato sauces, cigarette smoke, aspirin, and ibuprofen. While they can trigger or exacerbate heartburn, they don’t necessarily cause it.

What Kinds of Complications Are Caused by Frequent Heartburn?

There are a number of complications that can be caused by chronic heartburn.

  • Excess stomach acid in the esophagus can cause ulcers, damage to the inner layers of the esophageal wall, and narrowing of the esophagus.

  • Stomach acid can damage the respiratory tract, causing asthma, hoarseness, chronic cough, sore throat, or tooth damage. A person may feel as if he or she has a lump in the throat.

  • If the acid exposure continues for long periods of time, the esophagus becomes thick and damaged. A person may then have difficulty swallowing and food becomes stuck.

 Why is heartburn worse at night?

Heartburn usually starts about 30-60 minutes after a meal, and unfortunately for many people this means some post-dinner discomfort. Although heartburn can occur at any time of day or night, the pain is usually worse when lying down, which is why many people notice heartburn more at night than during the day. For patients with severe heartburn or who experience nighttime heartburn regularly, this can disrupt their sleeping schedule and be a huge cause of fatigue.   

How is heartburn treated?

For people who experience heartburn on an occasional basis after over-eating or while pregnant, usually basic lifestyle changes or the use of over the counter meds like Tums will be enough for some relief. If you regularly experience severe heartburn or notice that you are having heartburn several times a week, your doctor will likely recommend that you undergo further testing to make sure your heartburn isn’t an indicator of a more serious chronic condition like GERD.

How do I prevent heartburn?

There are certain lifestyle changes you can make to alleviate your heartburn, including:

  • Avoiding large meals, especially before bed

  • Avoiding caffeine

  • Staying away from your trigger foods such as spicy foods, citrus fruits, tomatoes, etc.

  • Avoiding lying down after meals

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

If you experience heartburn more than occasionally, it’s best to call a heartburn doctor and book an appointment to discuss your treatment options.