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Heartburn: symptoms, causes and treatments

Siski Green / 03 December 2014 ( 03 December 2019 )

Greasy or spicy food and alcohol can all trigger heartburn, but they’re not the only causes. Find out more about how to get rid of heartburn.

Christmas pudding and brandy butter
High fat foods can trigger heartburn

That stinging feeling in the upper part of the chest affects some people occasionally but many people suffer with heartburn every day, especially those in their fifties and above.

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What causes heartburn symptoms?

Your stomach contains hydrochloric acid which helps break down protein in the food you eat and the stomach lining protects us from that acid inside.

The problem arises when some of that acid accidentally comes up your oesophagus, usually because the valve that opens to allow food down isn’t working quite as it should so it also allows acid to come up along with expelled air, for example (a burp).

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Are there foods that trigger heartburn?

Yes, and unfortunately there are lots of them: chocolate, onions, chillies, citrus fruits, coffee, tomato-based foods and high-fat foods have all been found to increase the risk of heartburn or trigger it. 

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Why doesn’t everyone get heartburn?

Well, for a start it’s not just about what you eat but how you eat it. Large meals followed by a lie-down, for example, is more likely to trigger heartburn than a smaller meal followed by a gentle stroll. Furthermore, while everyone will experience stomach acid coming up into the oesophagus occasionally some people are more sensitive to it than others, resulting in the stinging sensation.

Is weight an issue for heartburn?

There is some evidence that being overweight or obese makes you more prone to heartburn but thin people can suffer with it just the same. Lying down, however, does make you more likely to get it so to avoid night heartburn try elevating your upper body – your head should be at least 25cm higher than usual to be effective.

Does stress affect heartburn?

Studies haven’t managed to show any evidence that being stressed increases heartburn but they have revealed that it increases our perception of how bad it is. If you can, try to de-stress if you want to avoid it.

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How to get rid of heartburn

If you suffer with regular and severe heartburn, you should see your GP who will be able to give you a test and advise you on the best treatment. Medications include H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors to prevent heartburn and acid reflux.

Otherwise over-the-counter medication such as anti-acids are also effective as they neutralise stomach acid. And don’t try drinking milk – research shows that while it temporarily alleviates symptoms, it can make the heartburn worse later on because it increases the stomach’s acid production.

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Anything else I should know about heartburn?

Smoking makes you more likely to suffer, partly, it’s thought, because it dries up saliva making your body less efficient at flushing the acid back down where it belongs. Tight clothing, too, can exacerbate the effects.

Finally, be aware that pain in your chest could be a heart attack rather than heartburn. If you’re in any doubt as to whether it’s heartburn or a heart attack, seek medical help.

As a general guideline, however, heartburn burns in a way that heart attack does not, it hurts in a different way. Heart attack may also be felt in surrounding areas while heartburn is focused entirely on the sternum.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.